Haitian Vodou

15 Jul

As long as we’re using aspects of Haitian Vodou and drumming for inspiration on a music and plot idea, we might as well do some research and learn some stuff. Although it’s the drumming that interests me the most, educating myself in all apsects of the various tangents that pop up in writing this show has been a huge joy and the main purpose of this blog. I assure you, 90% of my posts here are on topics i knew nothing about prior to writing the show and blog. (This includes steampunk itself, the weimar era, etc.)

Vodou is an African religion that is actually a hodgpodge of West and Central African religious worship interlaced with Catholicism. The slaves captured and sent across the sea pooled together their religous knowledge, gods, spirits and ritual to create Vodou.

As Catholicism was forced onto the slaves, numerous similarities were found between Christianity and their ancient African heritage, and these were combined. For instance, Catholics saints each had particular attributes and were prayed to in hopes they’d intervene. This was just like the Loa spirits and many saints became stand ins for African Loa.

Baron Samedi

In Vodou, there is one father God, Bondje, above all else. Bondje is taken from the french Bon Dieu, or Good God. This ultimate one great God is distant and does not really interact with his Creation, so if one wants intereaction and assistance, one must turn to the saints and angels… the spirits under Bondje, the Loa (Iwa).

What is particularly interesting is that many of these spirits do indeed have counterparts in the Christian heirarchy of saints and angels. Peter gaurds the gates of heaven, and his image was used to represent Papa Legba, who guards the gate of the spirit world and who must be called and honored at the beginning of each ritual to let the gate open.

Erzulie is the beautiful female spirit of Love and water, and she is represented by the Virgin Mary. Each person has a particular spirit who is closest to them and who watches over them, essentially a replication of a Gaurdian Spirit.

So one is left with a large pantheon of spirits to interact with, honor, and ask favors of.

8 Loa: Ezili Freda, Ogou, Ayida Wedo, Danbala, Gran Brigitte of the Gede, Bawon Samedi of the Gede, Lasiren, and Agwe

These Loa fall into 3 general categories:

Loa Rada: The “cool” spirits. They are graceful, stately, elemental and cosmic in nature. Their songs and dances are decorous and graceful, and the drumming that accompanies them is of an even beat. During possession by Rada, the celebrants sing and dance beautifully. The  Rada trace back to Africa.

Loa Petwo: The “hot” Spirits. They are newer and we added when the various slaves reached Haiti. They are aggressive and they come from the times of slavery and the rage and frustration slavery produced. It was the Petwo who were called and cultivated to help with the Haitian uprising in 1791 which resulted in the slaves liberating themselves and establishing the first black peoples’ republic, which is now Haiti. The drum beat accompanying Loa Petwo is uneven, and celebrants possessed may cough up blood, stick themselves with pins or knives, or eat glass, all apparently without being harmed when they come to themselves again.

Loa Ghede: The ancestral spirits.  They are spirits of the family line which can date back to Africa  They are often “quite rowdy and raunchy, sprinkling their conversation with profanities and sexual innuendo. Haitian culture is generally very conservative and does not normally reward such behaviour, but the loa Ghede can commit such social transgressions with impunity – being dead, they are beyond punishment, and they seem to feel that shocking people is perfectly reasonable. They typically do not use profanity in an abusive manner, but prefer to make people laugh at their over-the-top behaviour. Predominantly male, and praised with raucous songs and enthusiastic dances, the loa Ghede are the ancestors who bridge the gap between ‘Gine’ (Africa) and the living of Haiti. The Ghede’s names all end in La Croix in honour of Baron and Maman Brigitte who reclaim the souls of the ancestors and make them into loa; both Baron and Maman Brigitte’s symbol is the cross. Vodouisants possessed by the Ghede often dance suggestively (though without desire – it is a paradox that the Ghede represent both eroticism and death), drink strong spirits, and behave outrageously.”

The Loa apparently all live in a city beneath the sea (except for Agwe) called Ile Ife or Vilokan. The number of Loa are substantial. They are grouped into nations and families. There are 21 nations of Loa. Loa are also related to each other in families, and each family has a surname. So for instance the Ezili family has two sisters who are rivals, Ezili Freda and Ezili Dantor. 

Boukman, a Vodou priest, began the Vodou ceremony that started the 1791 uprising that freed Haiti.


An altar

A ritual is either personal or public and seeks to provide communion between the individual or community and the divine and/or spirit. Personal rituals usually include an altar. The altar is a very important aspect of personal prayer and is often elaborately decorated with candles, cloth, herbs, items associated with the Loa, symbols of the Loa (veves) and offerings of food and drink. Worshippers can light candles, sing, dance, make offerings, or simply pray quietly

The public ritual on the other hand is where the wild stuff goes down.

“Public rituals are more dramatic in nature. They take place in the hounfort (temple) or peristyle (an open but roofed sacred space). Both have a central pole dedicated to Papa Legba, around which all the activities revolve. The hounfort is decorated with the “veves” of the loa and altars. Beginning with a salute to Legba, keeper of the gate between worlds, the congregation is led through a pre-ritual feast and then songs and dances for the Rada, the Ghede, and the Petro. Vodouisants may become possessed by loa during the ceremony; the loa may wish to pass on specific messages, or simply manifest to enjoy the music and dancing.”

From M. Rock: “After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyol and African “langaj” that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the “Priye Gineh” or the African Prayer.

“After more introductory songs then the songs for all the individual spirits are sung. As the songs are sung spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in the wee hours of the morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos can go to sleep.”

One last little interesting tidbit: the Voodoo doll, you know, the one you stick little pins into, is NOT an African invention, it comes from European folk magic, the Poppet (from which puppet is derived). Vodou had ritual carvings of Loa or objects of power. The European Poppet was introduced by the Europeans and while the “voodoo” doll became used in Hoodoo,  which is folk magic not actually part of the religion, it is not a part of Haitian Vodou. Poppets are used by nailing them to a tree in a cemetery to act as liaisons to the afterworld, usually to carry some sort of message.

The “voodoo doll”  has become popularized due to movies and works of fiction. There is no question that Vodou has been on the receiving end of  a long campaign to paint it as evil, savage, and satanic, first by slaveowners and their culture, then by foreign Christians. Hollywood functions as a mouthpiece for painting fear and misunderstanding, mostly because it exists to excite popular imagination.

There is no question that Vodou and its very idea make Christians uncomfortable. One essential reason for this is that Christianity is mostly a fertility based religion; calm, pastoral, symbolizing the seasons and their renewal. Vodou is an ecstatic religion and its rituals promote altered states of consciousness. It is NOT calm. It is highly experiential. It is alien. It is however closer to the Charismatics and some evangelical forms of Christianity, althought they would vehemently deny this. (But look closely…)

One last thing: Vodou does also have rituals in which there are animal sacrifice. No doubt about it. The animals are killed in a very specific way which practitioners insist are humane and are indeed faster and simpler than most slaughterhouses where you get your meat from. The Loa feed off the life force of the animal and its blood. Make of this what you will.

Here is a list of some Loa:


Papa Legba Atibon – He is imaged as an old man, St. Lazarus is used to represent him in the hounfo or temple. He opens the gate to the spirits, and translates between human languages and the languages of the spirits.

Marasa Dosu Dosa – They are twin children, either in twos or threes. Imaged with Sts. Cosmas and Damien, or the Three Virtues.

Papa Loko Atisou and Manbo Ayizan Velekete – The prototypical priest and priestess of the tradition. They confer the office of priesthood in initiation.

Danbala Wedo and Ayida Wedo – The white snake and the rainbow, together they are the oldest living beings. Danbala brings people into the Vodou. St. Patrick and Moses are used for Danbala.

Ogou Feray – He is a fierce general who works hard for his children but can be moody and sullen at times as well.

Ogou Badagri – He is a diplomat, and is Ogou Feray’s chief rival.

Ezili Freda – She is a mature light-skinned woman who enjoys the finest things, jewelry, expensive perfume, champagne etc. She is said to own all men (or she thinks she does) and can be very jealous. She gives romance and luxury. She is so pure she must never touch the bare ground. Her main rival is her sister Ezili Dantor

Agwe Tawoyo – He rules the sea and those who have crossed the ocean, and is symbolized by his boat named “Imammou”. St. Ulrich is his saint counterpart.


Gran Bwa Ile – His name means “Great Wood”. He is a spirit of wilderness. He is fierce and unpredictable, and a section of the grounds of a Vodou temple is always left wild for him. St. Sebastian is used to represent Gran Bwa.

Ezili Dantor – a Petwo lwa, she is a strong black single mother. She does not speak, but makes a “kay kay kay” sound in possession. She is nurturing and protective but is dangerous when aroused, even to her own children. Her image is the Mater Salvatoris of Czestokowa. She often uses a dagger or bayonet, and her colors are often red and dark blue. A little known fact is that she is actually a hermaphrodite, and takes both men and women in marriage.

Ti Jan Petwo – the son and lover of Ezili Dantor.

Simbi – the Simbi lwa live in fresh water rivers and are knowledgeable in the areas of magic and sorcery.

The Bawons – they rule the cemetary and the grave. There are three – La Kwa, Samdi, and Simitye.

The Gedeh – The Gedeh spirits are all dead spirits who rule death and humor and fertility. They drink rum steeped with 21 habanero peppers and bathe their faces and genitals with this mixture also, to prove that they are who they say they are. They are sung for last at a party for the spirits. Chief of the Gedeh is Gedeh Nibo, with his wife Maman Brijit. St. Gerard represents the Gedeh.


Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Haitian Vodou

  1. David Ibarra Lavalle

    October 16, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    I would like to know why did you didn’t put Baron Samedi in the list of voodoo deities/spirits.
    Did you left him out on purpose or did you forgot to add him to the list???

  2. paulms

    October 16, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Actually, Baron Samedi is one of my favorites. I didn’t include his entire family chain, the Guédé, because i intended to do a follow up post to this.


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