A little bit about the formation of Vodou

Frater Vameri


Photo by Steve Winter.


It is common for me to get inspiration for the the themes of the articles I write from the Vodou literature. This happens because I am always looking for new studies and when I find interesting theories and informations I try to share them here. This week is not different. As I was ingread the article by Leslie G. Desmangles that I am quoting here, I kept thinking about how important it is to understand that Haitian Vodou is an authentic Haitian creation and that attempts to rescue Vodou practices in Africa or elsewhere will always find, at best, partial success. To better understand this, I will follow the lead of Desmangles to discuss two things: symbiosis and adaptation. However, I do not want to discuss these concepts alone, but rather I want to bring them up so that we might better understand how the Vodou formation process can explain the diversity that exists in this spirituality.


Forcibly brought from Africa and finding in the colony of Saint Domingue an inhospitable and cruel environment, the slaves could do little more than to keep the memory of their native lands alive. Therefore, it is argued that at first, Africans maintained their traditions as faithful as possible to what was done in Africa. In this scenario, we could imagine that if a group that worshiped Shango, for example, happened to be in the same mill, they would repeat the services from their homeland to their best and would not mix with other slaves who were worshiping another spirit.


In this scenario, it is possible to raise three initial problems: 1- these groups would rarely meet in the same mill; 2 - in meeting each other, they would have difficulties in performing their rites detached from the other slaves; 3- materials needed for the worship would not be found in the new land. In other words, any cult, even if it strived for its authenticity, as it necessarily came from another context and from another land, would have to go through an adaptation process. I will return to this discussion later.


When the colonists began to link slave cults to the processes of resistance, religious manifestations began to be inhibited. An example of this was the "Black Code" of 1685, which made the practice of African religions illegal and required that all slaves be baptized within 8 days of their arrival in the colony. This code had an unexpected effect. This rush to catechize and baptize slaves made the whole thing extremely bureaucratic. There was no significant effort to convert these men and women. This whole process was usually just to get a "stamp". Thus, what could have become a process with some conversion efficiency, proved to be practically inefficient for that goal.


In any case, the ban on African cults and the forced baptism brought French Catholicism to the world of slaves, which came to be used by these people in their ceremonies. Generally, this syncretism is understood as a form of resistance - that is, to continue to worship their spirits, Africans found correspondences between them and Catholic saints and used the saints as "masks". However, this explanation alone is not enough. There is more to this story.


It happened that more than just pretending that they prayed for a saint while praying for a Vodoun, slaves began to incorporate the two worlds (Catholic and African) into theirs . Thus, in the process known as symbiosis - or coexistence - these two worldviews ran in a parallel and juxtaposed way, forming a new thing, with elements of one and the other, but not fused. The saints were not only then "masks" for the spirits, but the saints were used as they were to give greater strength to the service. In other words, they used the power of both religions. They gave a new meaning to what was Catholic without necessarily equaling it to what already existed in the various African components. It is a complex process, in which Catholic elements were Africanized, yes, but not as mere disguises.


Of course, when we are discussing this issue, we focus on the slaves who were trapped into the mills. However, escapes and the formation of fugitive slave communities were significant phenomenon. These communities, very similar to Brazilian quilombos, were formed by women and men of different ethnicities. However, in such communities, the freedom experienced by these people was much greater, and then they could better observe certain principles (general) of African spiritualties: 1-are usually ethnic; 2 - include families, whose concept is not identical to the Western one, and may include people who share the same space even without a blood connection; 3- ancestry and place of birth are relevant. All of these principles were very difficult to maintain and observe in the mills, as I have already discussed briefly. However, they could be (even partially) rescued in fugitive communities.


A small highlight - it is clear that in the mills, the slaves maintained organizations and ways of trying to observe their traditions. I am trying to point out that these initiatives found very unfavorable conditions in the heart of slavery. For this reason, in fugitive communities, this phenomenon of preservation seems to have been more successful.


In the communities of maroons (fugitives), Africans could organize themselves by ethnic groups. In theory, this could happen in two ways: a community only for Africans of a certain ethnicity; or a community composed of different ethnic groups organized among them. These different groups within the same community must have been the most common form and it is believed that they formed secret societies to profess their rites. However, close contact with other groups also led to the inevitable process of acquiring new practices and beliefs. Now, let us imagine this happening in different, separate and distant communities and with different ethnic groups. The result, of course, can only have been a huge variety of religious expressions.


This can be seen, as Desmangles cites, already in the 18th century with the “groups” of Vodou called Rada, derived mainly from Arada from Dahomey , and Petro , with entities mainly from the new world. This division, incidentally, remains in the form of the most popular binary division of the types of spirits of Vodou whose categories are called: Rada and Petro .


In the end, I can only agree with Desmangles' conclusion : “In short, the formation of Vodou as it exists today was a gradual process of acculturation that took place over a period of more than two hundred years. (...) But Vodou rituals were never uniform or standardized throughout the colonial period. In fact, as it is today, Vodou does not have a Pope, it does not have a priestly hierarchy, it does not have an official bureaucracy that decides on the orthodoxy of its teachings. Each Vodou cell formed its theology independently (...) ”.


It is clear that Desmangles is right when we look at the process that was discussed in this article. With such a diverse and plural background and with all the wealth of African ethnicities, it would not be possible to expect something that was, in fact, standardized and uniform. This is one of the beauties of Vodou. Just as it was in its formative period, even today, each group will have its most striking and unique influences and will have more outstanding characteristics that will make each Vodou house express its religiosity in a unique and legitimate way.

Reference :

Leslie G. Desmangles . The Maroon Replublics and Religious Diversirty in Colonial Haiti. Anthropos. Bd. 85. H; 4/6 (1990), pp. 475-482.

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