Selected Voodoo terms

Bob Corbett

Voodoo is the dominant religion and cultural reality of Haiti. The Voodoo religion is native to Haiti, having been fused from an uneasy union of African and Roman Catholic elements.

Basic Theology

Voodoo recognizes one God, Bondye or Gran Met. However, there are a host of spirits or deities called loa which act as intermediaries between humans and God. The loa, unlike Christian angels or devils, have significant powers relatively independent of God, and embody both positive and negative forces within the same loa.

In addition to the loa, Voodoo recognizes the spirits of ancestors, Les Mots and the Marasa, the twins. Each person has a living body and two inner forces, the ti-bon-ange, sort of universal soul in the person and the gwo-bon ange, a personal soul. The person is immortal through the gwo-bon-ange which can, in time, merge with the loa themselves.

Priesthood and Hierarchy

Voodoo has male priests called *houngans and female priestesses called *mambo. Additionally there are *bokor, practitioners of black magic and sorcery who are loosely tied to Voodoo. There is little hierarchical control and each houngan, mambo and bokor operates in relative independence. The surprising unity which does mark Voodoo is caused by the way it developed and not by hierarchical control. There are no higher officials and no central governing body.

In addition to the houngan, mambo and bokor, there are lesser religious officials who help in various manners with the service. The *hounganikan is sort of a master of ceremonies. The *La Place..... *Hounsi are servers, usually, but not always women dressed in white. Central to any Voodoo service are the drummers, since the *tanbu, the African drum, is the very central reality of the religious service. There are typically three drummers beating three different sized drums, the *papa, the *manma and the *petit. In addition there is the much rarer huge 5 or 6 foot tall *assortor drum which is played from a platform.

Rites and *Healing

The two primary functions of the priests are religious services and healing.


The loa demand attention. They are seen as hard working powers in nature and need to be fed and attended by those who serve them, the *serviteurs. A primary category of rites is a *manje, a feeding, where the life of animals--chickens and goats for the most part, occasionally a pig or even cattle, are sacrificed to transfer their life powers to the loa. Other manje are to feed the dead or to remember particular services which the loa have provided.

Some religious ceremonies are to elevate *serviteurs to higher ranks within the Voodoo *hounfou or community. The primary degrees which are celebrated with religious rites are: *lave-tet, *kanzo, the purification by fire, and taking of the *ason, which is the elevation to the status of the priesthood.


Arguably the dominant activity of houngans and mambo is healing. Voodoo healing is an amalgamation of *herbal medicine, *faith healing and, increasingly, modern Western medicine.

Voodoo as the dominant cultural reality of Haiti

For the masses of Haitian people the Voodoo worldview defines the dominant sense of the world. This is a world not fully or primarily in control of the individual, but under the power of the loa. While, at times, this leads to a *fatalism or sense of a lack of free will and personal responsibility, it can lead to revolution or social action, if that is the will and demand of the loa. Illness and misfortune are often seen as not originating in natural forces such as germs, health conditions or social institutions, but in the displeasure of a loa, who has, perhaps, been ignored by the serviteur. Finally, the world is not only populated with such natural objects as minerals, plants, animals and humans, but also with *luga rou, *baka and other spiritual beings.

History and the origins of Voodoo

Part of the colonial defense of slavery was the obligation on the Europeans to convert the "infidels" to Christianity. Consequently the slave owners were expected to provide Christian religious training to the slaves.

In this manner most slaves were introduced to the basic elements of Christianity. However, the slave owners feared their slaves and feared portions of the Christian message that dealt with human dignity and individual worth. They also feared their own priests, who, in teaching Christianity might well instill in the slaves a concept of human being inconsistent with slavery. The owners saw a revolutionary danger in their own Christianity. Consequently, priests were generally forbidden to teach the slaves more than the barest rudiments of the Christian religion.

At the same time the slave owners were terrified to allow the slaves to gather for any purpose, including Christian religious services, fearing such gatherings would lead to uprisings. Thus, again, the form of Christianity forced on the slaves was a vague and shallow one.

Operating out of fear and prudence, slave owners chose slaves from different areas of Africa, hoping that the babble of different languages, customs, tribal loyalties and rivalries would work against unified action against the slave masters. This meant that the African religions of any slave population were quite different.

In this milieu of superficial and forced Christianity, and a wide diversity of African gods, the slaves gradually created their own religion--Haitian Voodoo, a *syncretism, or mix of Catholicism and African religions.

After Haitian independence in 1804, the Vatican broke relations with Haiti until 1860. During this period few Catholic priests lived in Haiti and the final chapter of the syncretism of the two religious traditions was consolidated.

Persecution of Voodoo

Upon the return of Roman Catholicism to Haiti in 1860 the Church began a long on-again, off-again campaign against Voodoo, culminating in an all out war, the *anti-superstition campaign of the 1940s. From the 1950s onward, especially after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has incorporated Voodoo music, drumming and dance into the Catholic liturgy and worked to co-opt rather than defeat the Voodoo serviteurs.

Increasingly since 1970 fundamentalist Protestant sects, almost exclusively from the United States, have taken up the strong battle against Voodoo, accusing it of devil worship, suggesting cannibalism and demanding of converts a complete separation from their Voodoo connection.

Voodoo and Class

One often reads denunciations of Voodoo by Haitians. Typically such works deplore Voodoo as *superstition and deny its place as central to Haitian culture. However, most such works are by Haitian elite. Historically the elite sided with French culture. From the colonial period on the Haitian mulatto and black bourgeoisie have embraced the Catholic religion, European culture, French language and Western ways. Since 80 to 85% of Haitians are illiterate, nearly all the people capable of writing books come from this small elite. Their views dominate the printed word in Haiti, but cannot be taken as the dominant position of the Haitian people.


Voodoo has often been charged with cannibalism, especially in some infamous American books published during the *Occupation. (See bibliography). One can categorically state that human sacrifice is not now nor ever has been a part of Haitian Voodoo. The one or two documented cases of *cannibalism must be viewed as non-Voodoo inspired aberrations.


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Bob Corbett