Painting by Andre Pierre.
One of the first things that should be said about Vodou that the term itself is derived from the Fon Language and means "spirit". In addition, this term is not commonly used by the Haitian people when they refer themselves to the religion. In fact, it ends up being used either by the academic community or by foreigners. Haitians often refer to the religion that is known as Vodou as "Service to the spirits" and they consider themselves "Servants of the spirits". This is important, because this already teaches us a valuable lesson about Vodou: it is a spirituality that orbits the notion of interaction with spirits and of contact with the invisible world.
It is this world of spirits, that world closer to the divine and endowed with powers and knowledge beyond those of human, which Haitians often turn to either for contemplation, intuitions or even, as one would expect in a poor country, for the resolution of concrete and urgent problems. In Vodou it is possible to feel and see the action of these characters that reach beyond “normal”. It is an interaction that somewhat eases the hardships of living in a condition that is often harsh.
For Vodou supporters there is a God that is the creator whom they call Bon Dieu. However, despite being unique and all-powerful, this God is far beyond human comprehension and is not so interested in our affairs. During creation, therefore, he would have given rise to other spirits who with a more intermediate nature could better guide and assist man in exchange for the attention and care provided through rituals. Thus, the interactions between visible and invisible in Vodou do not occur with God, but with these intermediaries, the Lwa. In addition, ancestors also play an important role as intermediaries even if in a lower “hierarchy” than those of Lwa. Some ancestors, however, through remarkable achievements can become Lwas in a process of "divinization" that takes them to another level in the Vodou cosmogony .
The Vodou ceremonies reveal these communications between men and the invisible. In the beginning Bon Dieu is generally greeted with Catholic prayers. Only then are the Lwas served. It should be noted that the Catholic prayers made at the opening point out that Vodou is a hybrid religion of predominantly African roots but with Catholic, native, Masonic and also French esoteric contributions. While the Lwa are served, they can decide to join the ceremony and that is when the most notorious phenomenon of Vodou happens: possession.
The possession of a “horse” by a Lwa is an event that has already been fantasized in countless ways in fiction and also demonized by the ignorant. It is a visually striking and conceptually instigating phenomenon because it deals with the surrender of a human body to a spirit. For Brazilians, this is not so surprising or fantastic, since they deal with these phenomena also in their religions of African roots. However, for the rest of the Western world the idea of possession in Vodou is just another variation of demonic possession for which the only solution is an exorcist priest.
It is already possible to partially understand the reasons why Vodou is feared and misunderstood. It is necessary to remove the dominant rational thought of the West and also the predominant Christian notions to better understand Vodou. In other words, it is necessary to leave ethnocentrism aside. If not, a Vodou ceremony will look like a hellish celebration.
The dynamic between people and Lwas happens through devotion, manual labor (cleaning temples, altars, etc ) and delivery of "gifts" and "food". Each Lwa has its preference. Ogou, for example, a Nago spirit of shared origin with Ogum from Candomblé, likes rum and cigars, so these gifts will be given to him. Erzili, in turn, prefers Anis liqueur. Therefore, it should not be offered rum to Erzili but the right drink. In addition, these spirits also ask for animal sacrifices. Roosters for Ogou and pigs for Erzili, for example. These sacrifices are made ritually and the meat is then generally shared among the community.
Although animal sacrifice is increasingly criticized in Western society it is a vital part of Vodou. It is necessary to consider that Haiti is formed by an extensive rural area where people raise animals for food. Thus, the act of killing an animal for sustenance is commonplace for those people. In addition, because poverty is widespread not everyone can eat meat and Vodou ceremonies can be one of the only opportunities for them to get this type of food.
The organization of Vodou is diffuse. This means that each Vodou house has its own rules, although there are rituals and dogmas that are largely preserved. Because of that it happens that there are many differences between the houses but Vodou always has a common structure that is recognizable. These differences, of course, can be striking. For example, in the south of the country, the prevalence of Ason lineages is very common, with a hierarchy of ecclesiastical positions and the delivery of the rattle ( Ason ), a symbol that refers to the serpent (central in the Vodou imaginary ) as a priesthood emblem. In the north and in other regions, other lineages do not work in this way and the ascension to the priesthood can be by inheritance or by direct imposition of the spirits.
This lack of central organization is, contrary to what one could think, fundamental to the cohesion of Vodou. After all, it is a religion based on direct communication with spirits. If there should be anything to be modified or an innovation to be embraced it will be the spirits themselves who will say how this should be done. If there were a figure with the power to legislate and impose rules, these communications would be weakened and Vodou would lose an important part of its meaning.