Haitian Voodoo: A Tragic Fetish

StoriesHaitian Voodoo: A Tragic Fetish

The common name of a group of Afro-Christian sects. Haitian voodoo sects appeared in the 18th century as a result of merging the beliefs of black slaves with Catholicism. The cult specifically developed when dictator Francois Duvalier came to power in 1957. Haitian voodoo’s specific feature is practice of witchcraft and black magic.

“The remains of a human body were found in the river Thames. As it turned out later, the remains belonged to a six-year-old boy of African descent. The restored picture of the incident shocked even experienced investigators. The murder was a ritual of the voodoo religion—the child’s throat was first cut, and then his body was dismembered into small parts.”

What is Voodoo and How Voodoo Appeared in Haiti?

Voodoo is a religion that originated in the Caribbean Islands (primarily in Haiti) as a result of mixing the traditional beliefs of African slaves and Catholicism. The name of the religion comes from the word “vodu”, which in the language of the fon people (living in what now is Benin) means “spirit, deity”.

In 1518, the first black slaves from West Africa were brought to the New Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. There were only three of them. Human commodity trade became a profitable and, therefore, attractive business. Streams of “black ivory” stretched from Africa to North and South America, to the Caribbean Islands, including Haiti. It is known that the supply of slaves to traders in Africa was carried out by black coastal tribes.

Some modern researchers believe that quiet transportation of two or three hundred people in the hold of a ship was possible only if they had been zombified by local African magicians.

Slaves from the fon tribe captured in Dahomey (Benin) and brought to Haiti were deprived of everything—property, rights, homeland… Only their old religion could help them survive. Drumming and ritual dances that brought Africans closer to their spirits were now performed on Haitian soil. White masters, as a rule, devout Catholics—forbade slaves to practice their native African religions. Negroes who were found to have fetishes were expected at best to be beaten and severely punished, and sometimes severely tortured and even executed. Slaves were forcibly baptized. However, African cults survived. Gradually, the black religions more or less mixed with Catholicism. The spirits put on masks of saints, archangels and Madonnas. Christianity became a cover for voodoo. It was possible to attend mass and continue to offer blood sacrifices and perform ritual dances at night. Christian statuettes, candles, and relics appeared on altars of black people. In that situation, many secret sects emerged, which later became voodoo sects.

The mixing of Catholic and African religious norms is obvious even now. Many followers of voodoo believe that the Christian God and the saints add more power to their cult. Voodooists celebrate Christmas, respect the Bible. During Lent, the doors of voodoo shrines are closed. The Catholic struggle against voodoo has continued throughout the history of Haiti. It is an interesting fact that it was allowed to include drum music in the Catholic service on the island in the middle of the last century. Until recently, most voodooists considered themselves Catholic at the same time, which is reflected in numerous statistical reports.

Afro-Christian cults like voodoo have spread to other Caribbean Islands and some Latin American countries. In Cuba, a peculiar religion was formed—Santeria; in Brazil, a mixed Afro-Portuguese-Indian religion is called macumba. Voodoo gained popularity in New Orleans (Louisiana), Miami, and later in New York.

Great influence on the formation of a specific Haitian voodoo religion had a fairly early independence of Haiti, which led to its isolation from the countries of Europe and closed its religiosity to itself. The island position of the state also contributed to the independent development of local cults.

Good location and fertile soil of Haiti made the island an object of constant struggle between the leading colonial powers—Spain, Great Britain and France. In the middle of the 17th century, Haiti belonged to France. (Within a century after that, according to many experts, there was a final formalization of Haitian voodoo as a specific religion of black people in the French American colonies.) By the end of the 18th century, Haiti became one of the richest colonial possessions in the world. Of course, the island’s prosperity was still based on the brutal exploitation of slaves. In the context of growing dissatisfaction with the oppressed status of black people, Haitian voodoo becomes a kind of symbol of national dignity of dark-skinned Haitians, an important factor in their self-consciousness. Some sources indicate that the revolt against the French, raised by Haitian slaves under the leadership of Toussaint-Louverture in 1791, began with a divination of a local oracle and the performance of the religious rite of Petro. The moment for the revolt was exceptionally well chosen. The French were not interested in Haiti—the revolutionary French troops at that time were more concerned with the war with the armies of the counter-revolutionary coalition. Later, Napoleon never succeeded in calming Haiti. The island became independent—the first independent state of black people of modern age. General Dessalines declared himself Emperor of Haiti.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
General Dessalines

Both Dessalines and the subsequent ruler Petion tried to show themselves as enlightened rulers and attempted to eradicate voodoo. Religion has gone underground again, retaining the charm of taboo. After a century of internal strife and constant struggle for power (during which, by the way, there were frequent clashes between Catholics and voodooists), the island was occupied by the United States. The Americans failed to reconcile the warring parties that continued their brutal war throughout the first half of the last century. The war ended with the victory of the black, mostly voodoo, population. But that victory did not bring happiness to black people and mulattoes.

Rise of the Haitian Voodoo Cult

The rise of the Haitian voodoo cult in the second half of the 20th century is associated with the name of Francois Duvalier. From 1957 to 1971. he was the dictator of Haiti and the surrounding islands of the Caribbean. Papa Doc was his nickname but not the only one. Many Haitians believed that Duvalier kept his power because he was a powerful voodoo priest.

Francois Duvalier was born in 1907. In 1932, he graduated from the medical faculty of the University of Haiti, and studied the US health system at the University of Michigan in the 40s. In 1946, a black man—Dumarsais Estimé—became President of Haiti. The black doctor Duvalier was the Minister of Health in his government. However, Duvalier had to go to the illegal position soon, because Estimé was overthrown by the military junta. It remained in power until 1956. Later, Duvalier was able to come out of hiding and even join the presidential race. Papa Doc lost the election, but he “replayed” the results with the help of regular troops, held new elections, and became President of Haiti. It happened in 1957.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
President Duvalier

The former democrat banned political parties, closed opposition publications, and dissolved trade unions and student organizations. A military and police dictatorship was established in the country, based primarily on the physical elimination of disloyal citizens. In particular, many Catholic priests were persecuted (the Catholic Church supported political opponents of Duvalier in the 1950s). In 1964, Daddy Doc was made President for life.

Duvalier was a specialist in voodoo and sensed the mood of the masses. Like many dictators, he wanted to look like a true leader of the people. On the other hand, voodoo, with its aura of mystery, reverence for “initiates” and frightening legends, could not be better suited as a tool to keep the illiterate population of Haiti in fear and obedience. Terror became based on religion. Papa Doc was actively promoting himself as a voodoo priest. He changed the colors of the national flag from the traditional red and blue to red and black (colors associated with an influential voodoo secret society—Bizango). Duvalier wore a black suit with a narrow black tie—the outfit of Baron Samedi (Saturday), one of the spirits of death. The President’s secret police and secret services (the legendary tonton macoutes still make Haitians shudder) periodically used voodoo rituals and symbols. In fact, this popular cult became the official ideology of the Republic of Haiti and one of the foundations of the Duvalier dictatorship. The population of the island was greatly impressed by an episode that took place in 1963. Duvalier, dissatisfied with the US antipathy towards him, publicly announced to the people that he used voodoo rituals to summon devil from hell, who would send a curse on the American President. Six weeks later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
Voodoo dolls

Many Haitians believed that Duvalier was endowed with supernatural powers and that he turned the people he killed into zombies, making them his invisible spies. Influential “dedicated” voodooists were interested in supporting the increased authority of the religion during the reign of Papa Doc, both after the death of the dictator and after the exile of the younger Duvalier—Jean-Claude in 1986. However, during the troubles that followed, Haitian voodoo was subjected to another persecution in Haiti. Voodoo was blamed as an ideology of dictatorship.

There are reports that local entrepreneurs gave a warm welcome to former tonton macoutes who fled to Brazil. At businesses run by Haitians, people pointed at some employees, claiming that they had been turned into zombies for disobedience. Rumors about zombification strengthened the authority of the owners and scared off curious officials from the regulatory bodies.

Opinions on Haitian Voodoo

In 1990, a former leftist Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, became President as a result of the “first free elections in Haiti”. Dissatisfied with his reforms, the island’s wealthy elite deposed Aristide, but Aristide returned to power after several years of trade embargo initiated by the United States. His presidency was an important milestone in the history of voodoo. From a secret cult, it became an export item, one of the income items of a poor country—its brand. Famous artists and musicians (for example, Michael Jackson) became fond of voodoo.

Here is a description of a typical ritual “for spectators and tourists”: ” In the presence of so many curious onlookers, what mystery could it be? A typical colonial party… They were beating their tamtams and howling…  probably hired for the occasion. Artists of a folk ensemble, their black faces seemed disguised. No ecstasy was observed, no one fell into a trance, no one was going to bite off heads of live roosters. Well, nothing sinister—just a boring show,” — reported an eyewitness of the ritual.

Thousands of voodooists from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Plaine-du-Nord every year for a solemn voodoo ritual. “We have our own temples,” says Haitian voodoo priest Nene. “We believe in God and baptize people, we conduct religious ceremonies—so,we are really a Church.”

In April 2003, Aristide signed a law declaring Haitian voodoo one of the state religions. The first of November is declared a holiday on the island. According to the voodoo calendar, this is a holiday when the dead are honored. Not everyone likes voodoo as an official religion. “The Bible says that we are created in the image and likeness of God,” says a Catholic priest Adones Jean-Juste. “But these people who bathe in mud behave like pigs. They are the kind of animals that like to wallow in the mud. Voodoo worshipers need to be cleansed through baptism in Christ.” In the fall of 2003, thousands of Haitian Christians took part in a day of prayer held to protest against the recognition of the voodoo cult as the state religion. In addition, Haitian Christians sent their “spies” to the voodoo priests. This was stated by Terry Snow, Director of the Youth Mission of Haiti. The spies went to the place where, according to legend, an alliance was once made with the devil, who allegedly received the soul of Haiti in exchange for a victory over the French.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish

According to Snow, voodoo priests brought many sacrificial animals to that place—pigs, goats, and chickens, but a dispute broke out between the followers of the cult and no sacrifice was made. A new sacrifice was planned for January 1, 2004. This day is the main national holiday of Haiti—Independence Day.

Haitian Voodoo Ideology and Practices

Voodooism is not just the worship of spirits, gods, and demons. For a voodooist, there is no division between the material and the spiritual world. The spirits and demons are not otherworldly beings, they are constantly present in this world. The voodooist is a pragmatist and performs rituals in order to immediately get what is sought for. The voodoo gods are from this world, and for a voodooist, the world is just as good as the desires it generates.

The object of voodoo worship is the Dahomey Loa deities, who have acquired vivid Haitian features. Voodoo sects see the meaning of life in communicating with Loa in order to gain their favor and get valuable information. Loa are very numerous and active, they operate in our world. Voodooists believe that every thing is a continuation or manifestation of a particular Loa and serves it. Deities of African origin belong to the Rada class. There is another class—Petra. These are the Loa, who entered the Pantheon much later. Most often, they are deified spirits of historical figures or local Haitian gods.

The Haitian voodoo practitioners recognize the existence of the original Supreme deity, who is called Gran Met. He created the world, but he is too far from it to be worth worshiping. The eldest of the Loa is the serpent spirit Damballa. Even before the era of slavery, Africans revered the python Dangbe. This snake is not safe for humans, and the dahomeyans believed that the child it touched was destined by God to become a priest or priestess. After migrating to America, the slaves replaced the python with a boa. Damballa is the beginning and the end of all things, the ocean of eternity that surrounds our material world on all sides. Damballa is the source of Power and the location of all Loa. Damballa created all the waters of the Earth. The movement of its seven thousand rings formed the mountains and valleys of the Earth, as well as the stars and planets. The serpent smelted metals and sent lightning arrows to the Earth, which formed rocks. When Damballa shed his skin under the sun, spilling water on the Earth, the sun shone in the water and created Aida-Vedo (Rainbow). Damballa fell in love with the Rainbow and made her his wife. Aida-Vedo is embodied in a small snake that lives in water and eats bananas. Its bright colors reproduce the decor of Haitian voodoo temples.

There is another important Loa without which no communication is possible between the gods and man. This is Legba (Papa Legba). Papa Legba represents the East and the Sun; manages doors, gates, and windows, as well as the New Year (and any beginnings and endeavors in general). No deity can participate in the ritual unless Papa Legba is asked to open the door for the deity. (For the Catholic Haitians, Legba is associated with the gatekeeper,  St. Peter.) In Voodooism, the following gods are also revered: Agwe—the god of the sea, Erinle—the god of forests, Ogou Balendjo—the god of healing, Ogun—the god of war and iron, Papa Zaka—the patron of agriculture, Erzulie—the goddess of beauty, wealth and prosperity, as well as many others. A special class of Loa are Guede, the spirits of death and graves, passionate desire and debauchery. The most popular forms of Gede are Ghede Nibo, Ghede Mazaka, and Baron Samedi (Saturday). They are depicted as white-bearded old men in long coats and tall hats. Their indispensable attributes—a skull, a coffin, a cross and a cane. People who are obsessed with Baron Samedi (the graveyard dweller) make greasy jokes, eat greedily, smoke cigars, and drink huge amounts of alcohol.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
Baron Samedi

Voodooists are divided into priests (sorcerers) and laymen. The voodoo initiation ceremony lasts for three days, after which the initiate is washed with cold water containing the petals of sacred flowers. In some voodoo sects, blood (usually, chicken blood) is used for ceremonies.

The role of sorcerers in voodoo is extremely important. Male sorcerers are called houngans. Priestess are mambo witches. Their influence on ordinary followers of voodoo is not limited to the religious sphere, but extends to all aspects of life, including medical and legal practice.

Voodoo ceremonies are held in a special room—the hounfour (sanctuary), which is a small hut with a shed attached to it. Inside the hut, there is an altar, which contains both voodoo and Catholic symbols. Hounfours also contain special rooms for specific Loa. In the hounfour center, there is a mitan—a center post which is the road of gods, along which Loa supposedly descend during the service. Even if the ceremony is not held in a specially equipped place, it still begins with sticking a long pole into the ground.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
Ritual in hounfour

The ritual of establishing a connection between people and spirits is performed with the help of a specially trained and tranced voodooist. During the ritual, the voodooist is allegedly possessed by a Loa. Movements of the person demonstrate what kind of Loa has taken possession of the person, and the houngan can ask the deity questions or consult with him. The music of ritual drums is used for trance induction. Three drummers, tapping out a clear rhythm, each with their own, announce the opening of the ceremony. Then, they sing their request addressed to Papa Legba: “Papa Legba, open the gate and let me pass. Open the gate so that I can thank the Loa.” Dancing around the pole, mambo (or houngan) draw a magic circle around the pole with a stream of water from a jug in honor of Papa Legba and the guardian of the house Ogun, in order to ward off evil spirits present. Then, the sorcerer creates a veve on the floor—a drawing of white flour (the sign of the called Loa). During ceremonies, houngans propitiate Loa by sacrificing various animals (primarily a young rooster). The sacrificed meat is partly eaten, and partly scattered and buried.

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
Loa spirits

A Loa-obsessed voodooist is temporarily transformed into a “horse of God”. Young girls who are possessed by old spirits even become physically transformed and become decrepit and weak. Conversely, a weak person who is possessed by a strong young Loa begins to dance and jump, completely f orgetting about diseases and weakness. Loa can heal, prophesy, give worldly advice and spiritual guidance. Priest John Huth, who has worked in Haiti all his life, says that people who are obsessed with Loa often feel themselves significant for the first time in their lives. They speak with authority, and people listen to them.

If Loa are satisfied with generous gifts, and the ceremony is conducted correctly, there can be no doubt about the successful result.

Voodoo caused and causes fear in many respectable Europeans and Americans. At the end of the 19th century, a book written by a missionary became popular, in which the author described disgusting and highly exaggerated details of the rituals of this religion, such as devil worship, infant sacrifice, and cannibalism. His followers—writers, journalists, and filmmakers—have maintained the dubious reputation of the mysterious religion, and it must be said that voodoo ceremonies can really overwhelm an unprepared person.

“The beating of drums and chants continue hour after hour without stopping. A goat and a small black pig are lying on the ground, both with their throats cut, and all the people around them are spattered with blood. The animals are thrown into a small pond full of bubbling brown mud. People in blue and red clothes jump into the pond after the victims.” This is the culmination of a traditional voodoo ceremony on the plain of Plaine-du-Nord. And here is a description of a ritual performed “at home” in one of the poor quarters of the capital of Haiti—Port-au-Prince: “From the crowd gathered in a circle, swaying from side to side to the ever-accelerating rhythm of the tamtam, a woman broke out, spun around, pulled the headscarf from her head, swayed, fell, throwing her hands to the sides, and froze in prostration. Four more people broke into the circle, spinning like a top, tearing their faces with their fingernails. Blood gushed out, which no one noticed. Mass psychosis, trance, frenzy. “

haitian voodoo: a tragic fetish
Haitian voodoo ritual

In addition to such shocking rites and attributes of death, “black voodoo magic” played a huge role in creating a frightening image of the Haitian religion. Witches who use black magic are called bokors. They are members of secret societies. It is believed that bokors can cast a spell on a person using a wax doll, or revive a dead person, completely subjugating him.

Stories about zombies, the living dead, uncomplaining creatures without memory and will, are almost as popular as stories about vampires. From a purely voodoo term, the word “zombie” has become a social and political term. Brainwashing the population using electronic mass media, noisy events, etc. is often called zombification.

In Haiti, zombification is considered a very real and dangerous phenomenon. For residents of the country, this is not just a myth. Article 249 of the Criminal Code of Haiti states: “It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.”

The word “zombie” is derived from the Congolese “nzambi”, i.e. “living corpse.” The ability of Haitian voodoo sorcerers to induce clinical death of a person with the subsequent return of the person’s physical capabilities, but without memory and will, is allegedly inherited from Africa.

Bokors, according to Haitians, can zombify and make a person their slave. The islanders love to tell about villagers who recognize wordless plantation workers as their relatives who were buried many years ago. There are external signs that allow you to “unmistakably” identify a zombie: swaying when walking, mechanical, unintelligent movements, unfocused eyes, nasal voice. A person can be in a zombie state indefinitely, but they can not be given salt, which is believed to restore the zombie’s memory and ability to normal speech

Here’s what the voodoo practitioners tell about how to zombify people. The sorcerer makes a certain powder, puts it in a jar and buries it in the ground for three days. The classic way to poison a person with this substance is to quietly pour a little powder on the back or legs of a future zombie. The person briefly convulses, and then ceases to show signs of life… The grave is dug up two or three days later. Rhythmically beating the drum, you need to open the lid of the coffin and call the name of the “dead” several times. The newly “born” is taken away from native places, given a new name and exploited. Many Haitian voodooists believe that a sorcerer can turn a really dead person into a zombie if catches the “good angel” (a part of the human soul) when flying away.

Anyway, bokors actually know how to prepare some kind of narcotic drug that puts a person in a comatose state. Apparently, a long stay in such a state can lead to serious mental and physiological disorders, because the drug is poisonous. An American scientist specifically interviewed Haitian voodoo priests and those who were called zombies, took toxicological samples and found out the approximate composition of the sinister powder. The most important component of the substance is tetrodotoxin extracted from a torafugu, which is added to a hallucinogenic drug from a certain type of toad. Other substances are also added (this is more likely for “spectators”) drops of liquid from a dead man’s nose, crushed bones of a dead mambo witch. The resulting poison blocks the transmission of nerve impulses, which leads to lack of will, speech loss, death, or the appearance of death. It was found that the poison contained in the Haitian drug is related to the poison produced by the famous pufferfish.

Adherents of Haitian voodoo are struggling to protect their dead from the fate of zombies. A heavy stone is piled on the grave, and the dead are placed face down, their mouths filled with earth, and their lips sewn together. Some families spend all night near the burial site until the body, in their opinion, begins to decompose. In Haitian voodoo practice, a special “anti-theft device” has been invented, which is installed on local graves. In remote villages, shooting or dismembering the deceased during funerals are still practiced as a specific Haitian voodoo ritual.


The number of initiated voodooists is no more than a million people. According to some estimates, there are more than 40 million followers of the cult in the world. The number of sects of voodoo is more than 100.

The magic doctrine is set forth in numerous books that can be found on many bookstores. It seems that it is from these books, which primarily focus on the most shocking and sinister aspects of the religion, that local “bokors” gather their knowledge.

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