Roots of Vodou and Vodou Beliefs. More about the Vodou religion and the roots of Vodou. This section serves as a basic primer of the roots, concepts, and beliefs of Haitian Vodou and the other spiritual paths of the African traditional religions as represented at Erzulie’s Voodoo in New Orleans. The following overviews are not intended to replace the vast, culturally rich, and complex theology, but instead, to provide general foundational beliefs, dispel common myths, misnomers and acquaint you with the power and beauty of the mysteries of Vodou.
More comprehensive information and extended areas of focus on the History of Vodou, Haitian Vodou Glossary, Vodou Veves, Vodou Prayers & Proverbs and All About Vodou is available in our Voodoo Articles section. If you wish to discuss the Vodou tradition, this spiritual path and how the Vodou can assist you with your spiritual needs, our initiated practitioners are always available for a spiritual consultation. Alafia from all of us at Erzulie’s Voodoo in New Orleans!
I. VODOU BELIEFS
Vodou is an enormous, complex, culturally defining, mystical, historically rich, and visually breathtaking religion. Vodou heals, Vodou aligns, Vodou enlightens, Vodou fortifies, Vodou reveals truth…Vodou empowers! Journey through this area and discover the origin, evolution, and spiritual traditions of the mysterious and magical world of the Vodou.
Vodou, also spelled Voodoo, Vaudoux, Vodun, Voudou, Vodu & Vaudon, commonly known as Sevis Ginea or “Ginea (African) service”, is the traditional religion and culture of the Haitian people. The Vodou religion or more accurately, the Vodou culture, is an amalgamation or synthesis of animistic beliefs stemming primarily from the Fon-Ewe people of West Africa, (current Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey), the Kongo people of Central Africa and strong influence from the Yoruba in Nigeria.
People often use the term “Voodoo” to include any and all African-based diasporic religious traditions as they have survived in the new world; this is rather misleading since the word Vodou identifies a specific set of traditional Spiritual practices only, and more specifically, as it’s practiced in Haiti.
Contrary to popular belief, Vodou is indeed a monotheistic religion, whose followers believe in one Supreme God. In Haitian Vodou, God is commonly called Bondje or Bondye
(from the French Bon Dieu, or “Good God”). In essence to a complicated theoretical topic, here the belief holds God is rarely involved with the human experience, more specifically, the daily trials and tribulations of being human. Bondye is perceived as remote, detached, and beyond our human abilities to comprehend such Supreme consciousness.
Due to this, an entire pantheon of Divine intercessors exists on behalf of Bondje to intercede and assist in all areas of the human condition. Vodou calls these same spirits by many names including: “Mistè-o” (Mysteries), “Lezenvizib” (the Invisibles), “Sen-yo” (Saints), “Sa Nou Pa We Yo” (literally, “Those We Do Not See”), and especially, Lwa. We have an entire section on Erzulie’s app on iTunes & Google Play with more elaboration to Meet the Lwa up-close and personal section.
The Lwa are the spiritual, often ancestral forces or mistè-o invoked in Vodou, to assist mankind in every area of human need. There are many different Lwa in Vodou with each having their own characteristics, symbols, prayers, favorite offerings, sacred tools, colors and most importantly, specific domain of the various aspects of life. Love, healing, stability, or family issues are a few of many areas where the Lwa and often, our ancestral spirits, may be called upon to intercede. While the Lwa have enormous power and abilities to heal, protect, elevate, and realign life for us mere mortals, their powers are finite. Only God/Bondje is omnipotent. As we simply say; only God controls all: Good and Evil…
II. ROOTS OF VODOU
The African traditional religions arrived to the New World around 1522 through the transatlantic slave ships headed to Saint-Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola. Around the 18th century the largest number of West African slaves arrived and carried with them unique spiritual beliefs, ethnic lineages, traditions and devotion to their beloved African Spirits firmly embedded in their consciousness and from which, Haitian Vodou was born.
Vodou is a fusion of the root Western and Central African spiritual traditions, blended with the practices of the indigenous Taino and Arawak Indians of the Caribbean and, largely due to Christian Missionaries, European religious systems including Catholicism.
Slaves syncretized Catholic images with their African Spirits in order to worship and secretly retain their beliefs. You will find all throughout the Vodou stunning imaging incorporating all of these influences. There is even more information on this fascinating topic in the Erzulie’s Vodou app Erzulie’s Vodou app on iTunes & Google Play.
Due to the synthesis of the root African traditions, Vodou is said to have 21 Nations of spirits, such as Dahomey, Kongo or Nago nations indicating where they originate, and specific “Families” within these “Nations” sharing common root names for the spirits therein. More details on Vodou nations and families are explored in greater detail in the Erzulie’s Vodou app on iTunes & Google Play, but for purposes of this section an example would be:
- Ezili or Erzulie, this indicates the “Family” of spirits, with roots from the Dahomey “Nation” and includes many of the Ezili or Erzulie spirits such as Erzulie-Freda or Gran-Erzulie.
- Further, in Vodou, the Lwa are primarily divided into 2 categories or rites based upon their general characteristics: Rada and Petwo groups or rites.
- If the Lwa falls into the Rada side of Vodou, they are said to have cooler, calmer, temperate and soothing energies.
- If they fall into the Petwo side, they are said to have hot, fiery, fierce and intense energies.
- Both types of energies dwell within every human and both types of energies are necessary depending upon the situations in our life.
There is another very important family of spirits that are distinctly different and do not fit in either category or rites of Rada or Petwo Lwa known as the Ghede or Gede (pronounced /GEH-day/); the Guardians of the Cemetery and Guardians of the Dead.
While the Gede represent death and our ancestral spirits, they actually reside at the crossroads of life and death, ever reminding us of the fragility and preciousness of human life: our creation, familial lineage and mortality. Further, the sacred knowledge Gede possess about our familial ancestors is vitally important as ancestor veneration plays a significant role in the Vodou tradition.
You will find in Vodou rituals and ceremonies, both the Lwa and ancestors are similarly revered. Careful thought and
preparation go into presenting their favorite items, food offerings, beverages, prayers and music usually on their unique days to petition their assistance and seek blessings. Aside from the vast abilities of the Lwa, ancestors are especially helpful with connecting to our issues in this world. Some say our ancestors are the energies that initially obtain favors from the Lwa on our behalf, and some say our ancestors are also Lwa, and the Lwa, our ancestors. One of the many mysteries of Vodou…
III. VODOU CLERGY (OR SERVING THE SPIRIT)
Additionally, the Lwa play an important role in terms of who we are and become as humans as well.
Our belief holds that every person has their own unique Master of their Head, or as we say, “Met Tet.”
Our Met Tet is the principle Lwa are assigned to us throughout our entire life and form the foundations for our major characteristics, temperament, energies and innate abilities, among other areas, and are the principle driving force of how we maneuver, interact and our perceptions in this world.
Much like the family you are born into, your Met Tet is not chosen: you are born with your principle Lwa. Interestingly, many “Vodouisants” (followers of Vodou) don’t often call upon their Met Tet or work with them for any rituals or spiritual requests per se as it is not a spirit easily identified.
Rarely is your Met Tet revealed except through a formal spiritual service, one method is a “Lave Tet,” performed by a Mambo (Priestess) or Hougan (Priest) over a three day period, to determine such information, and this is typically divined when one is becoming initiated. For your own edification, this is NOT something determined in a simple card or psychic reading as many “Voodoo experts” on the internet claim.
Aside from determining such sacred knowledge for possible initiates and providing spiritual guidance for all participants in their Spiritual Temple, or “Hounfò,” the roles of Mambos (or Manbos) and Hougans are vital to the continuation of Vodou and serving God, the Lwa and the Ancestors. They are the guardians of the history, liturgy, songs, prayers, rituals, secrets and responsible for all ceremonial aspects in their Hounfò. Manbos and Hougans wield an enormous amount of power due to their knowledge and shoulder extraordinary responsibility for all members in their spiritual houses.
One does not become a Manbo or Hougan without intense training, devotion and typically, years of service at varying levels of initiation. These are no titles that can simply be purchased as these sacerdotal functions are much more profound than merely carrying an “ason,” the sacred initiatory rattle reserved for highest ranking Manbos and Hougans; contrary to what you may read on the internet.
Becoming a Manbo or Hougan is a lifelong commitment of serving the spirit, teaching sacred truths, serving all in the Hounfò for their spiritual, and often, secular needs: food, health, medicine, birth, and burial rites are few of the many obligations required to be a Manbo or Hougan.
It is a grueling, laborious, relentless, and exhausting path which takes tremendous sacrifice, years of study, discipline, evolution and unconditional faith in spirit. Walking the clerical path in Vodou requires a level of commitment rarely seen in today’s instant gratification culture; all too often we see people who claim mystical titles without a modicum of Vodou knowledge or serving the spirit aside from maybe, a brief sojourn at someone’s temple.
Titles are bought and sold to lost souls daily who need to validate their lives and be a “somebody” overnight. Sadly, initiations are for sale to anyone in search of proving their importance with such lofty labels; however, a mere title alone does not a Manbo or Hougan make, no matter how much your ego may wish. We explore more detailed information on Vodou initiations, obligations, and spiritual responsibilities in the Erzulie’s Vodou app on iTunes & Google Play.
NOTE: This section was written specifically to honor of all those Manbos and Hougans who serve God, the Lwa and Ancestors with their lives, heart, and soul! You comfort each of us every day with love, compassion, and spiritual knowledge. All of us at Erzulie’s Voodoo take a bow to you ~ you are the bravest people we know.
IV. VODOU CEREMONY
Vodou ceremonies are at the heart of serving the Lwa, the ancestors and the community. Every member of the hounfò contributes to the preparation of these ornate, visually dazzling, intense and musically hypnotic celebrations. There are many reasons an hounfò will conduct a Vodou ceremony: to honor specific Lwa, seek blessings for a prosperous season, spiritual initiations, preparing magical items or services, and major religious holidays.
One of the most elaborate Vodou ceremonies is known as the House Party (sevis kay). This is a time for each hounfò to entice their spirits with ritual dancing and singing, often performed by the “ounsi” (initiates) of the house, spiritual drumming, breathtaking altars and specially prepared feasts to honor and nourish the Lwa, the ancestors and the assembled community.
Often, for a sevis kay, participants will arrive from miles around and celebrate for days, if not a week or more, in the covered part of the hounfò (Vodou temple) known as a “peristil.” The ceremonies revolve around a sacred center post, known as a “poto mitan,” the most powerful structure in the peristil.
The poto mitan is a long post running from the floor to the ceiling in the center of the temple, carefully decorated with images of Danballah and Aida Wedo, the serpent and rainbow Lwa (more on them in the meet the Lwa section) to represent the mystical gateway. This is installed in every peristil to create the magical axis in which the Lwa arrive during Vodou ceremonies.
Think of the poto mitan as the metaphysical highway from heaven to earth, connecting the Lwa and ancestors to their
Symbols are extremely important in Vodou ceremonies and the most magical are the ritual drawings of “Veves” (sacred symbols of the Lwa). Each spirit has their own Veve; when meticulously drawn and properly activated by the Manbo or Hougan, they compel that Lwa to manifest.
- Veves are complex visual illustrations representing specific Lwa.
- These stunning spiritual symbols are traced by hand on the floor, using corn meal, wheat flour, powdered leaves, or other ground material, depending upon the spirit they are inviting.
- Veves can be drawn individually or intersected with many Veve’s throughout the peristil, but only Manbo or Hougan can open this magical portal to bring forth the Lwa.
- Watching these striking, intricate designs come to life during a Vodou ceremony is truly a magnificent feast for the eyes.
- We have an entire section on dedicated to the sacred Veves of the Vodou Lwa for you to enjoy these exquisite visuals.
These dazzling celebrations are carefully prepared to enchant spirits, through drumming, dancing and songs or compel the spirits to appear using magical Veves activated by secret initiatory words.
We explore in great detail how the Lwa appear, interacting with the spirits and possession in the Erzulie’s Vodou app.
Suffice it to say, highly skilled Manbos and Hougans are critical to officiate such rituals, as only the most experienced can conduct and control such powerful forces during Vodou ceremonies.
V. SACRED VODOU OBJECTS, ART & MAGIC
In Vodou you will find elaborate altars and temple rooms adorned with vibrant, colorful and striking magical objects.
Spiritual artistry is the hallmark of Vodou culture and this mastery is reflected in stunning “Drapos” (sequin flags), Vodou dolls, “Paket Kongo (magical packet),” spirit bottles and “Fetish Wanga or Ouanga” (magic charms).
While visually captivating, these items serve a deeper purpose in the world of Vodou ritual magic and despite what you see in Hollywood movies.
Magical objects are a powerful means of obtaining spiritual intercession, solutions or relief for troubling situations. They are prepared to conjure and control supernatural forces to bring forth your desires.
Vodou practitioners, Manbos and Hougans possess the carefully guarded secrets to manifest these spiritual forces effectively.
Magical items are crafted for myriad purposes: love, health, prosperity or protection and during various Vodou ceremonies.
Each are meticulously handcrafted with sacred herbs, ingredients and offerings then wrapped in beautiful materials such as colorful fabrics, ribbons, sequins and feathers to house the spirit(s) within.
Some objects are crafted under the influence of a specific Lwa, as with authentic Vodou dolls, to represent that spirit and placed on their shrine and range from simple creations to elaborate displays of the Lwa.
Ouanga and spirit bottles are prepared to bring about certain desires and operate much like a spell or magic charm to
manifest your petition. Other spiritual items are prepared during special rituals performed for a particular spirit such as a Paket Kongo to heat or activate the Lwa for power and used henceforth as needed.
Regardless of one’s magical desires, Vodou has certainly mastered the secrets of fusing powerful conjure within sacred spiritual art unlike any other tradition. We explore more on this topic in the section of How to Use Voodoo Dolls and how magical Vodou objects as created at Erzulie’s Voodoo in New Orleans.
We sincerely hope this introduction assists you with exploring the many expertly written articles on the Voodoo religion through the Erzulie’s website, and any future journey of discovering the magical and mysterious world of Vodou! To learn more about the Vodou religion, Vodou rituals and Vodou altars & shrines, download our comprehensive Vodou app available on iTunes & Google Play. Alafia from all of us at Erzulie’s!