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Anyone studying Haitian Vodou eventually stumbles upon the Haitian secret societies. It is easy to dismiss the subject as something of lesser importance as if those societies were just more details in an already intricate system. Truth is, however, that those secret societies are self-sustaining systems that do expand the Vodou universe and Haitian culture instead of limiting them.
Educated guesses put that those societies have started to develop at the turmoil of the Haitian Revolution. It is known for sure that from the independence onwards (year 1804) they multiplied themselves. Laguerre believes that the Maroons (slaves that had run away from the plantations and formed communities) have perpetuated themselves through those secret societies. Some of those are not exactly “secret” otherwise we would not be discussing them. It is a fact that some societies function like a small state with their own executive, legislative and law systems. Now this is something that maybe resembles what happened in the Maroons communities.
The most famous of those societies for sure is Bizango (a name that derives from “Bissangos Islands”). Bizango is famous for the power they hold and also for appearing in the book “The Serpent and The Rainbow” by the Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis who is allegedly an initiate in that society and who also would have revealed to the world the secrets of “Zombie” making.
Bizango is one of the most known of those secret societies. It is known that (in a very masonic way) a new member can only be appointed by invitation. Also, there are reports of the initiation process being long and a real fidelity test for the neophyte.
Laguerre (again) states that Bizango has developed their own form of Vodou. It is not absurd to extrapolate this and think that the same must have occurred in other societies since Vodou is essentially inseparable from the daily lives of many Haitians. Thus, the adoption of a set of rules and of a certain ethos probably ends up generating a union that creates a new spiritual expression. Here the details go scarcer and we don´t know much about this Bizango Vodou. This may be so because the vows of secrecy are severe and strong and they bound to be respected.
Bizango (and others also) are strong mainly in rural Haiti. In those places they can act like a net of protection, support and maintenance of order. Thus, it is possible that the omission of the government encourages the rise of such societies if we want to analyze the situation by such a prism.
It is also of note that those societies have “patron” Lwas. As already explained by Frater Selwanga XVI in his essay “OTOA e o Vodou Haitiano”, a patron Lwa of a secret society will affect the very expression of Vodou as it is commonly understood. It is the case in Bizango, Sanpwel and also in La Coulevre Noire. All of those societies offer unique perspectives in accordance to their regent spirits.
In conclusion, we can easily understand how those secret societies really do enlarge the realm of Haitian Vodou. They are but another witness of how Vodou is diverse. We should never forget that from temple to temple of Vodou, even when we do not take in account secret societies, there is a great variation in the practice. When we look to the secret societies we can, thus, understand that maybe there is a Vodou for each Lwa.
Deren, M. Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti
Laguerre, M. S. Voodoo and Politics in Haiti.