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Enduring Beyond Oppression - The Truth About Vodou

This article was written by Ross Heaven on January 14, 2005
posted under Vodou

Vodou is a religion born in slavery, which blends together a number of traditional African beliefs with elements from other faiths, notably Catholicism, the religion of the slave-owners, with which it has always been an uncomfortable bed-fellow.

It began in Haiti in the ethnic "melting pot" created by French colonial slavery when Africans of many different lineages were forcefully transported to become agricultural slaves in this new land. The indigenous Haitian Taino and Arawak peoples had already been largely exterminated during the earlier Spanish invasion, yet much of their culture and traditions remained and these, too, were incorporated into the African beliefs. Europeans, including pro-Stuart Scottish deportees, also came to settle in Haiti. Their beliefs were also absorbed. The result was a broad mix of many different African, indigenous Haitian, and even European pre-Christian traditions which, through a process of evolution and syncretisation, became blended and formalised to create a religion which encompassed them all.

Early Catholic zealots, the religious elite of the French slave-owners, set about "civilising" the "heathen" slaves and indoctrinating them into Christian beliefs and practices. Some, like the missionary Father Labat, took pride in their work. Labat writes glowingly in his journal of at least one occasion where he personally beat a slave to death in order to "save his soul" and encourage others to renounce their own traditions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Vodou became a clandestine religion, practiced in secret, since open espousal of its tenets was almost a guarantee of death. This low visibility suited the political, economic, and religious elite perfectly, enabling it to demonise Vodou practices still further and secure funding from the French Court in order to police the slaves more effectively and build more churches for their conversion.

Finally, in 1791, the injustices of slavery grew too intense and a Priest of Vodou called Boukman Dutty, himself a slave, led an uprising which was to become the first successful slave revolt in history. The struggle ended more than 30 years later, with the formation of the world’s first black republic.

Vodou remained banned in Haiti until 1987, however, and efforts to destroy the religion continued throughout most of the last century (notably during the U.S. military occupation between 1915-1934 and again in 1941 when the Catholic church, with state backing, set about an Inquisition-like campaign to destroy Vodou artefacts, torch its temples, and coerce the Vodou community to adopt its belief system).

Vodou endured despite these efforts, and was finally accepted as the formal religion of Haiti in 2003. While it is technically true to say that Vodou has only existed as an orthodox practice since the late 1980s (when the restrictions against it practice were lifted) and as a recognised world religion for only a few years, in reality its roots are as ancient as African history.

What is it that accounts for this longevity, against all the odds? For the followers of Vodou, it is the very closeness of the Gods and the comfort they bring which will ensure that Vodou survives. As Joseph Cleveland, a Haitian cook now living in Ottawa put it in the Montreal Gazette recently: "I do not practice Vodou – I live it."

Despite its somewhat exotic reputation, and the "wars of faith" between the Haitians and their Catholic masters, Vodou has much in common with Christianity. There is one creator-God, known as Gran Met ("Great Master"), or Bondye ("Good God" - from the French Bon Dieu), an entity concerned with the grand cosmic plan and the order of the universe, who can therefore seem somewhat distant from everyday human affairs.

Gran Met has therefore assembled a pantheon of ambassadors for his work on Earth, to ensure that his people do not feel abandoned and forgotten. These are the loa (or "lwa"), who are at once separate entities with specific roles and functions - somewhat like the angels of Christianity - and, at the same time, aspects of the same God-energy and representative of his will.

The loa are directly available to man through the mechanism of possession, a trance-like state where the follower gives over the control of the physical body to the spirits who will then "mount" him so that he becomes their cherval ("horse"). The loa are then immediately visible among the people, dispensing wisdom, advice and healing to the congregation. With Vodou, you do not pray to the Gods, you become the Gods themselves.

The character and function of the loa, varies enormously, like some grand cosmic division of labour. Gran Bwa (literally, "Big Wood"), for example, is revered as a great healer, while Erzuli, the goddess of love, is concerned with emotional and relationship issues, and Ogoun, the warrior-loa and diplomat, is called upon to resolve legal matters and personal conflicts. In this way, the loa have a psycho-spiritual and pastoral role to perform as well as a religious function - helping to resolve conflicts directly, and dealing with fundamental human issues of love and belonging.

The ancestors (zanset yo) are a third spiritual force in Vodou. Even the Haitian national anthem begins with the words, "For the country, and the ancestors, we walk united..." Every family compound has its own ancestral graveyard, many with tombs so elaborate that they sometimes resemble small houses.

In this tripartite system of God, loa, and ancestors we can, in many ways, see the Christian Holy Trinity reflected, with Gran Met as the Father, the loa as the Son(s), and the ancestors as the Holy Ghost, ever-present in the lives of the people.

At the centre of all this stands the Houngan, or Vodou Priest.

Initiation (or becoming "made") as a Houngan (Priest) or Mambo (Priestess) is a formal procedure that involves arduous ritual performances by the candidates at the ceremony of bat guerre ("the battle for the spirits"). Here - through physical exertion and mental concentration, against the hypnotic backbeat of drums, chanting, and the clashing of ceremonial machetes - the candidate is expected to become possessed by a particular loa who is then interpreted to have expressed a declared interest in and offered patronage to, that person.

The final night of the bat guerre is followed by seclusion for five nights and four days in the dark isolation of the djevo, the inner sanctum of the Vodou temple, where secret teachings are imparted. The djevo experience culminates with another public ceremony, the brule zin ("flaming pots"), where the candidate is expected to demonstrate his partnership with the loa by plunging his hand into pots of boiling oil. If the initiate can do so without harm, he is seen to be protected by the Gods. If he cannot, he may be considered to have less currency or power as a Priest.

If the initiate succeeds, he will enter the Priesthood at one of three levels: hounsi kanzo, a rank equivalent to a pastor; sur point, equivalent to a Catholic Minister; or asogwe, equal to that of a Bishop. The challenges for each rank are practical, physical and visible to the community and offer categorical proof that the candidate is accepted by the spirits, the most important judges of all.

In his new capacity, the Houngan, like any religious leader, is the authority on the nature and desires of the spirits, as well as therapist, doctor, magistrate, counsellor, and confessor to the members of his community and the people he serves.

As all of this suggest, there is rather more to Vodou than animal sacrifices and black magic - nor is it some exotic dark art. Rather, it is a religion just like any other, and demands the same respect that would be given to Catholicism, Buddhism, or other more mainstream faiths.

Even more fundamentally than this, Vodou is an expression of the human spirit and the power of will to overcome any form of oppression in order to enjoy whatever faith we choose, despite provocation or attack from others.

Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.

He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.

He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.

As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at ross_heaven@yahoo.com.

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