A ritual exclamation used in the sense of Amen.
Agoué (Aga-ou, Agoueh, Agwé)
The loa who represents the sea, is the patron of fishermen and sailors, and is the husband of Erzulie in the aspect of La Sirène. His symbol is the drawing of a boat. In sacrificial rituals to Agoué, champagne and other offerings are loaded on small, specially constructed rafts and set adrift at sea; if the boat sinks, the sacrifice has been accepted.
Aida-Wedo (Ayida Wèdo, Ayidohwédo)
The loa who represents, with her husband Damballah-Wedo, fertility and new life, and who has special influence in the realms of conception and childbirth. Her symbol is the rainbow, and in the hounfort, the rainbow colors painted on the poteau-mitan represent her. Her color is white, and she is offered white chickens and eggs. See also Damballah-Wedo, poteau-mitan.
The loa who represents the marketplace and herbal healing. As an aspect of Legba, she is the protector of the hounfort and guardian of religious ceremonies, who never possesses anyone during ritual; she is also the wife of Loco. Her symbol is the palm leaf, and her colors are white and silver. See also healing, hounfort, Legba, Loco.
The ancestors are always with the practitioners of vodou; wherever they go, whatever they do, they act with awareness of their ancestors' presence around them. The spirits of deceased family members offer protection, healing, and advice, and they bring messages through intuition and dreams. If you travel through the countryside of Haiti, you will quickly see how important the peasants consider their ancestors to be. A family graveyard adjoins each house, and the tombs are as elaborate as the family can afford. Some resemble houses built above the ground, and the most elaborate contain small, completely furnished sitting rooms inside. Often, lit candles are placed before the tombs and prayers are said to the spirits of the family's ancestors. Visitors must pour a small libation of water before the tombs, so that the ancestors will welcome the newcomer into the house. See also death, conception of.
Unlike the gods of other religions, the vodou loa need to eat. And just as we do, they lose power when they aren't fed. If a community feeds the gods to keep them strong, then the gods will use that strength to support the community in times of hardship and trouble. Because of this, most rituals include a food offering of some kind, which can include animal sacrifices. To people who get their chicken for dinner from a supermarket already cleaned, packaged, and ready for the oven, an animal sacrifice may seem like a barbaric practice. But to a Haitian peasant, who frequently doesn't own a refrigerator and usually must kill his food shortly before eating it to keep it fresh, killing a chicken to feed a loa is no different than killing one to feed his family. In fact, the sacrifice has even more meaning because the peasant has given up something of real value -- an animal that he was probably planning to eat (although the entire community actually eats the animal during the ritual). In sacrifice, the animal's life force becomes a part of the loa. The animal's blood is collected in a calabash gourd and tasted so that the devotees can share in the loa's divine energy. The cooked meat, as well, is shared by both the devotees and the loa; nothing is wasted in vodou. Doves and chickens are the most common sacrifices, although for important ceremonies, the community may offer a more expensive animal like a pig, goat, or bull. See also mangé loa.
Asson (açon, ason)
In vodou, the symbol of the priestly office is the asson, a ritual rattle made from a hollow calabash gourd filled with stones, snake vertebrae (which represent Damballah-Wedo), and small bones and decorated with beads on the handle. The asson serves as the voice of invocation and controls the direction of rituals. When a houngan is ritually raised to priestly authority, he is said to have been "given the asson." See also houngan.
Azaca (Azaka, Azzaca)
The loa who represents agriculture and who protects crops. He is depicted as a coarse peasant carrying a straw bag called a macoute. His color is blue, he is given corn cakes and cornmeal as offerings, and he often takes his food into a corner to eat in secret.
Several separate chambers called bagi are found inside the larger hounforts, each room consecrated to a single loa. Smaller hounforts contain only one or two rooms that hold several altars, one for each of the major members of the vodou pantheon. See also hounfort, pé.
In vodou, everything is balanced: there cannot be light without dark, good without evil, or white magic without black. That is why the dark loa, the Petro, are as revered as the Rada -- without the one, the other could not exist. That is also why so many loa have both a good and a dark aspect; each one is necessary for the balance of all the cosmic forces. See also black magic, Petro, Rada.
A ritual ceremony in which objects used in the hounfort are baptized, or consecrated to the loa.
Baron Cimetière (Baron Cimeterre, Baron Cimetié)
One of the family of Guédé, the loa who represents the cemetery. See also Guédé.
Baron-La-Croix (Baron Crois)
One of the family of Guédé, the loa who represents the cross. See also Guédé.
Baron Samedi (Baron Sanmdi)
The most powerful member of the Guédé family, and the loa who represents death. Baron Samedi controls passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and he provides information about the dead. His symbols are the cross, coffin, and phallus, and his color his black. When he possesses devotees, he tells lewd jokes, makes obscene gestures, wears dark glasses and a top hat, smokes cigarettes, eats voraciously, and drinks rum in which 21 hot peppers have been steeped. See also Guédé.
See Ogoun Tonnerre.
Barque d'Agoué (barque d'Agwé, bato Agoue)
A specially constructed raft that is filled with offerings to Agoué and set adrift upon the sea. See also Agoué.
An entranceway or gate, particularly between the material world and the world of the loa. See also Legba.
A long stick or crutch used by Legba. See also Legba.
The vodou orchestra, which usually consists of three drums and an ogan. See also drumming, ogan.
Battérie maconnique (batri maconik)
A rhythmic beat produced by clapping the hands and beating the drum that symbolizes rapping on the door to the world of the loa.
A secret society of black magicians that supposedly practices zombification. See also black magic, zombie.
All houngans and mambos are also black magicians. That is, they understand and know how to perform black magic, even if they do not literally practice it. A houngan must know evil in order to combat it. In this way, the houngan balances the forces of the universe, a very important function in vodou belief. However, honest priests will have nothing to do with any practices designed to bring harm to others or to defraud people. Real vodou is always used for good ends, to promote the good health and good fortune of members of the community, to cure sickness and solve problems, and to commune with the spiritual world. See also balance, bokor, magic.
Bokor (bocor, bòkò)
Houngans who actually practice black magic are called "those who serve the loa with both hands," or bokors. Unlike the open religious rituals practiced by a reputable vodou priest, the bokor works in secret, primarily to protect his recipes for various potions and poisons, but also to avoid the censure of the true devotees to vodou. The bokor has no hounfort and does not lead any société; rather, he sells his services to whoever is willing to pay. See also black magic, engagement.
See Grand Maître.
The bonfire that is lit during a vodou ritual.
The smallest of the three drums used in Rada ceremonies. See also drumming.
Boule zen (boulez-zain)
After death, the houngan can burn the govi containing the dead person's soul, or ti-bon-ange, in a ritual called boule zen. This burning of the jars releases the spirit to the land of the dead. See also death, ti-bon-ange.
The loa who represents money and who has special influence over black magic and ill-gotten fortune. She is also the wife of Baron Samedi and is analogous to the Catholic St. Brigid. Brigitte lives in a tree in the cemetary and dresses in purple. Black chickens are sacrificed to her. See also Baron Samedi, black magic.
After the ordeal of the canzo initiation, the initiate has been resurrected into the religion of vodou and is ready to undergo the final test, the brulé-zin. Draped in a white sheet so that no part of the head or body is visible, the initiate takes a handful of boiling cornmeal that the houngan himself has seized directly from the pot. The initiate returns the hot cornmeal to the pot while his feet pass directly over the flame beneath, but he isn't burned. The entire canzo initiation ritual has adequately prepared him for this final "trial by fire." See also canzo.
See human sacrifice.
The first level of initiation is the grueling ritual called canzo, which serves as a rite of passage and symbolizes death and rebirth into the religion. Not every practitioner of vodou has to go through this ritual; usually only those devotees who are training to become priests or who would like to take a larger part in the rituals do so. The canzo initiation requires significant financial sacrifice, strict discipline, and the acceptance of moral obligation, so no one undertakes this ritual lightly. The ritual can take as long as week to complete. First, the initiates take a purifying bath, start fasting, and drink a concoction made from the fruit corrosal, which is supposed to have a sedative effect. The initiates wear dried palm fronds as protection against evil spirits. They then lie down around the center-post, with their heads in the middle and their legs sticking out like the spokes of a wheel, while the houngan lectures them on what they are about to experience and their obligations once they are fully initiated in vodou. Afterward, they are locked in the djévo, where they receive the laver tête ceremony. Then, they undergo the final trial by fire. The following morning, the initiates reenter the real world dressed in white and wearing masks of palm leaves. They visit the sacred trees located around the hounfort and salute the spirits who reside inside them. They are then free to return to the peristyle, where a dance and celebration in their honor is held. See also brulé-zin, djévo, hounsi, laver tête.
Carrefour is the Petro equivalent of Legba. He represents the dark of night, and stands in balance to Legba, who represents the day. He controls the evil forces of the spirit world and allows bad luck, misfortune, and injustice to enter the world. His symbol is the crossroads, and his color is black. See also balance, Legba, Petro.
Catholicism, influence on vodou
In Haiti, the African beliefs mingled with the Catholicism of the French colonialists to form a syncretic religion, one that combined significant elements of each religion to create a harmonious whole. The white plantation owners forbade their slaves to practice their native religions on pain of torture and death, and they baptized all slaves as Catholics. Catholicism became superimposed on African rites and beliefs, which the slaves still practiced in secret or masked as harmless dances and parties. Practitioners of this new religion, vodou, considered the addition of the Catholic Saints to be an enhancement of their faith, and incorporated Catholic hymns, prayers, statues, candles, and holy relics into their rituals. Tribal deities adopted the aspects of Catholic saints. The cross, already a powerful symbol in the tribal religions as the crossroads, where the spiritual and material worlds meet each other, was adopted as the symbol of the powerful god Legba. However, it's important to note that the vodou gods did not literally become the Catholic Saints; rather, they adopted the symbolic trappings of Catholicism and the Saints who they seemed to resemble most while retaining their original characteristics and personalities.
A vodou ritual. See also baptême, canzo, dessounin, invoking the loa, laver tête, Legba, mangé loa, mangé sec, peristyle, range, retirer d'en bas de l'eau, salutations in the ritual, vévé.
Because vodou is such an archetypal religion, symbols carry great power. They are not magical; they are just evocative of the gods that they represent and the power that the god holds. Vodou practitioners may wear charms or amulets, fashioned by a houngan and generally used for protection from harm, that invoke the power of one of the loa and impose that power on the wearer. For instance, a protective charm may be inscribed with the cross that symbolizes Legba. Again, the charm itself is not magical; it simply represents the spirit who is conferring his power on the wearer through the symbol.
Cheval (chwal, ch'wl)
Literally a "horse," this term refers to a person who has been possessed, or "mounted," by a loa. See also possession.
A raw white rum native to Haiti, a favorite drink of Guédé. See also Guédé.
The complete body of knowledge of the loa, vodou rites, and herbal cures held by a houngan or mambo; some of this knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next, and some is intuitive or supernaturally revealed by the loa. See also houngan.
The corps cadavre is the physical body, flesh, and blood of the human body that decay after death, as opposed to the everlasting components of the soul. See also death.
Literally "to put to bed," this term refers to the point in the initiation ritual when initiates are enclosed in the djévo. See also canzo, djévo.
See mangé sec.
This term refers to anything that is native to Haiti, including the language, people, plant life, and loa, as distinguished from objects that have African origin.
Dahomey (Dahomé, Daromain)
The foundations of vodou are the tribal religions of West Africa, brought to Haiti in the seventeenth century by slaves captured primarily from the kingdom of Dahomey, which occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The word is also incorporated into the names of loa who originated from there, such as Erzulie Fréda Dahomey, and designates dances that originated from that region.
Damballah-Wedo (Dambala, Damballa, Danballah, Danbhalah Wèdo)
The symbolic father of the loa, Damballah-Wedo represents the ancestral knowledge that forms the foundation of vodou. With his wife, Aida-Wedo, he also represents fertility and new life. His symbol is the snake and the asson, his color is white, and he is associated with the Christian figures Moses and Saint Patrick. White chickens and eggs are sacrificed to him. Those who are possessed by Damballah-Wedo sliter instead of walk, hiss instead of talk, and climb trees. See also Aida-Wedo.
Death, conception of
In vodou belief, death is not thought of as a cessation of life. Rather, in death, activities are simply changed from one condition to another. The body, the shell for the life force, simply decays, while the n'âme that animated the body returns to the ground as earth energy. The soul, the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, endures after death in a different form. The gros-bon-ange returns to the high solar regions from where its cosmic energy was drawn; there, it joins the other loa and is itself transformed into a loa. The ti-bon-ange is transformed into an esprit and revered as a family ancestor. See also ancestors, Baron Samedi, gros-bon-ange, ti-bon-ange.
The period of physical movement, often very intense and violent, that reflects the struggle between the soul and a loa over the possession of the body of a devotee; this conflict subsides once the loa has taken full possession of the body. See also possession.
Dessounin (desounen, désounin)
The process of separating the gros-bon-ange from the body after death is called dessounin, and it occurs before or soon after the Catholic burial of the body. During this ceremony, the guardian loa of that person is also separated from the soul. The houngan often becomes possessed by the loa, who makes pronouncements about the future of the société. Powered by the loa, the priest is reborn, as the divine essence of life that belonged to the dead person becomes part of the houngan, passing through on the way to the cosmic plane where the loa live. Only a fully initiated and experience houngan should take the spirit from the dead in this way, as it is a risky and dangerous procedure. The malevolent spirits of the dead may do harm to an ill-prepared priest. See also death, gros-bon-ange.
During the canzo ritual, the initiates are ushered into a chamber inside the hounfort called the djévo, where they may be locked in for as long as a week. This room represents a tomb where the initiate dies and is reborn into vodou. What goes on inside the djévo is supposed to be kept secret, but that is where the laver tête ritual takes place. See also canzo, laver tête.
Dossa or dossu (dossou)
The first female or male child (respectively) born after twins, who is believed to have supernatural powers. See also twins.
Ceremonial flags that are brightly colored and sewn with sequins in the design of vévés; La Place and his assistants carry them during rituals. See also La Place, vévés.
Drumming is crucial to any vodou ritual, because it sets the rhythm for the dance, and abrupt changes in tempo can bring on possession by the loa. Three drums are used in Rada rituals, and they are treated as sacred objects. The largest drum is called the maman, the next largest the seconde, and the smallest the boula. Sometimes, an instrument called an ogan, which looks like a large flattened bell, is struck to announce the basic rhythm that the three drums will play. In Petro ceremonies, only two drums are used, both smaller than the "mother" drum of the Rada ritual. The drumming in Petro rituals is more off-beat and faster than in Rada ceremonies, in keeping with the tension, rage, and violence of slavery days that gave birth to the Petro cult. See also Petro, Rada.
Certain Petro loa are partners in black magic and will perform harmful services in exchange for a huge price. This pact between the loa and a bokor is called an engagement. See also black magic, bokor, Petro.
Representing love, beauty, purity, the ideal female, and the moon, Erzulie is the most beloved of the loa and the wife of Ogoun, Legba, and Agoué. She can influence romance and marriage, good fortune, and artistic creation. Her symbol is the heart, her colors are pink and blue, and she is also represented by a model boat hanging from the ceiling of the peristyle. Her Catholic equivalent is the Virgin Mary. As offerings, she is given desserts, sweet drinks, champagne, perfumes, flowers, candles, and white doves. Devotees possessed by Erzulie wear feminine clothes, dance, and flirt conquettishly, but this behavior is always followed by weeping for lost loves and unfulfilled dreams before Erzulie leaves the material plane.
The Petro aspect of Erzulie represents jealousy, vengeance, and discord, and she is often cruel toward women's desires. Her symbol is a heart pierced by a dagger, her colors are red and black, and her sacrifice is a black pig. Possession by the Petro Erzulies is marked by uncontrollable tantrums. See also Erzulie, Petro.
Erzulie Fréda Dahomey
An aspect of Erzulie as a white woman who lives in luxurious surroundings. See also Erzulie.
Erzulie ze Rouge
See Erzulie Dantor.
The ritually raised spirit or soul of a dead person. See also retirer d'en bas de l'eau.
The flour or cornmeal used to trace the vévés of the Rada loa. See also Rada, vévés.
Farine guinée (farin ginen)
The powdered charcoal ash used to trace the vévés of the Petro loa. See also Petro, vévés.
Feeding the loa
See mangé loa.
A protective charm used to ward off black magic. See also black magic, charms.
This term refers to Africa, the land where the loa originated.
Given the asson
Refers to when a houngan or mambo is raised to priestly authority. See also asson.
A sacred clay vessel in which the loa or spirits of dead ancestors are housed. See also pé, ti-bon-ange.
Grand Bois (Ganga-Bois, Grans Bwa)
The loa who represents the forest.
Grand Maître (Gran Mèt)
Vodou belief recognizes an original supreme being, called the Grand Maître or le Bon Dieu, who made the world and who is analogous to the Christian God. However, the Grand Maître is too remote for personal worship.
Great Serpent, the
Gros-bon-ange literally means, "great good angel." At conception, part of the cosmic life force passes into the human being to become the gros-bon-ange. All living things share this force, connecting all of us in a great web of energy. The gros-bon-ange keeps the body alive and sentient, and after death, passes back into the reservoir of energy in the cosmos. Without the gros-bon-ange, a person loses his or her life force; it's possible, according to vodou belief, to separate a person's gros-bon-ange from the body and store it in a bottle or jar, where the energy can be directed to other purposes. The gros-bon-ange also separates from a person when he is possessed, although it isn't clear where this important part of the soul goes during those times. The most important effect of the death ritual is to send the gros-bon-ange to the cosmic community of ancestral spirits, where family members can revere it as a loa, and where it can offer advice and help to surviving family members. If this isn't accomplished, the gros-bon-ange can become trapped on earth, bringing misfortune and disease to those family members who ignored its needs. See also death, dessounin
Guédé (Gede, Ghede
Guédé is actually a group of loa that is made up of the many spirits of the dead and is separate from the Rada and Petro groups. These loa represent death, sexuality, and buffoonery. They are also healers of the sick and protectors of children. Their colors are black and purple, and they frequently possess devotees, when they wear elaborate costumes with large hats, dark glasses, and walking sticks, or when they cross-dress. See also Baron Samedi, nanchon.
One of the houngan's chief occupations is as healer, a very important role in peasant villages that typically make do without the benefits of modern health care. But you shouldn't confuse the houngan with the stereotypical notion of a witch doctor. Rather, the houngan is more akin to a folk healer, drawing on a considerable knowledge of herbal remedies to treat minor illnesses like headaches, colds, infections, and stomach complaints. Because the houngan's patients believe that he works directly with the loa, his remedies often have a strong psychosomatic value as well as a purely medicinal one, which seems to bring about miraculous cures. Nevertheless, members of the société with serious illnesses are referred to a medical doctor by the houngan. See also Aizan, houngan.
Sesame seeds that are placed in a coffin to prevent a bokor from disturbing the corpse. See also bokor, zombie.
In New Orleans in particular, a new form of African-American vodou has spawned. This offshoot of vodou is sometimes called "hoodoo," a term that refers to the African-American tradition of folk magic. This form of vodou emphasizes magic rather than religion, and the initiatory traditions of the original religion have largely disappeared. However, as more Haitians have emigrated to New Orleans, they have brought the religious aspects of vodou back together with the African-American folk magic traditions.
Hounfort (houmfor, hunfor)
The temple where rituals are performed and where the members of the société gather together. Only one houngan or mambo presides over each hounfort. The hounfort must contain many basic elements for rituals to be held there properly. A square house, the hounfort proper, is located adjacent to the peristyle and contains the altars to the loa. See also houngan, pé, peristyle, société.
The houngan is the priest of vodou, its religious leader. The houngan acts as a community leader as well as a spiritual leader, and he serves many functions within the société. His maintains absolute authority over the community, because he is the only person who is fully trained to interact with the gods and to interpret the complex body of belief that makes up vodou. Houngans are highly revered members of the community, someone who can be relied upon to offer sound advice, with all the force of the spirit world behind it. Virtually nothing is done in the community without first consulting the houngan. The houngan has many means by which to contact the gods, including dreams, ritual invocation, and fortune-telling using cards, palm-reading, or figure drawings. Each société's spiritual leader also has the power to alter the vodou ceremonies of his community, tailoring them to the particular gods that are revered by that community, which explains why vodou practices can vary so dramatically even in villages that are right next-door to each other. As well as priest, the houngan acts as confessor, confidential adviser, financial adviser, and prophet for the people in his community. Generally, the houngan inherits his office from a parent. The current priest trains future priests from a young age, and the new houngan is not fully initiated until he reaches his early thirties, usually at the age of thirty-one. See also asson, healing, invoking the loa, société.
The houngan or mambo has one female assistant, who is next on the priestly hierarchy -- the houngénikon. She leads the chorus that chants during the ritual. She also supervises the sacrificial food offerings made to the gods.
Hounsi (hounci, hounsih, hunsi)
Once initiated, a vodou devotee becomes a full-fledged hounsi, outranked only by the houngan and his immediate assistants. The hounsi can now take a more active part in the rituals -- as a member of the chorus of chanters, for instance. They are also more likely to be possessed by one of the gods during the rituals. As the initiate receives more training and instruction, he or she may eventually become La Place or the houngénikon, and so continue on the long journey toward eventually becoming a houngan or mambo. The term hounsi means "bride of the spirit" in the Fon language of Dahomey (although a hounsi can be either male or female). See also canzo, initiation.
Hounsi bossale (bosal)
An initiate who is not yet fully trained and so is given more mundane duties during the ritual; also means "wild" or "untamed." See also hounsi.
The chorus of fully initiated female members of the société. Performing under the direction of the houngénikon, they sing to the gods in the astral plane and so call them down to earth.
The sacrificial cook during a ritual. See also animal sacrifice.
The initiate who obtains the sacrificial animals for a ritual. See also animal sacrifice.
The spirit of the ritual drums. See also drumming.
One of the three male drummers. See also drumming.
Many people mistakenly believe that vodou requires the practice of human sacrifice or cannibalism. Vodou first got this reputation in the mid-1800s, when Sir Spenser St. John, an English consul who despised blacks, spread the rumor that the Haitian people as a whole practiced the sacrifice of children. As with all sensationalist rumors, this one was quickly picked up and repeated, particularly by yellow journalists. However, no one has ever found any convincing evidence that human sacrifice was ever practiced in vodou ritual. Sometimes, when a person's death is brought about through the means of black magic or by an evil spirit, that spirit is said to have "eaten" the person. You shouldn't take this to mean that the person was literally cannibalized; rather, it means that the evil spirit consumed the person's life force. See also black magic.
In vodou, there are a series of initiation rituals, each one taking place as a devotee gains a higher level of knowledge of vodou traditions and standing in the community. Initiation rituals can only take place in Haiti. See also canzo.
The ritual introduction of a loa to a new hounfort; this term also sometimes refers to possession, when the loa installs himself in a devotee. See also possession.
Invoking the loa
At the climax of the ritual, the houngan calls the loa. To invoke the loa, the priest strikes the vévés with his asson, which obliges the loa to descend to earth. See also loa.
The sword, which symbolizes Ogoun, carried by La Place during rituals. See also La Place, Ogoun.
Literally "the torch," this title is added to the names of certain Rada loa when an especially fiery aspect of their power is invoked. See also Rada.
La Place (laplas)
The houngan or mambo has one male assistant who has been almost fully trained for the priesthood and will one day undergo initiation as a houngan assistant. This male assistant is called La Place. He is the grand marshal of the ritual and directs the overall movement of the ceremony. In the ritual, he carries a sword called the ku-bha-sah, which he uses to cut away the material world, leaving the faithful open to the spirits who reside in the cosmic plane. La Place also orchestrates the flag-waving and drumming that takes place during the ritual. See also drumming, salutations.
La Sirène (La Sirènn)
An aspect of Erzulie who represents the sea and is the wife of Agoué; she is symbolized by a mermaid. See also Agoué, Erzulie.
A conch shell often used as a horn in vodou ceremonies, particularly those connected with the loa of the sea. See also Agoué.
Langage (langaj, langay)
The sacred but unintelligible language that originated in Africa and supposedly imitates Damballah-Wedo's hissing; it is often spoken during possession and is similar to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. See also Damballah-Wedo, possession.
One important event that is known to take place during the canzo ritual is the laver tête ceremony, in which the initiate is consecrated to one particular god who acts as guardian of that person; this god is said to "sit on the head" of the initiate. Generally, an initiate's guardian spirit is the one that first possessed him; if none of the immortal spirits has ever possessed the initiate, the houngan chooses the most appropriate spirit for that person. After the laver tête ceremony, sequined flags and govis are carried inside the djévo, vévés are drawn on the floor, and doves and chickens are sacrificed. The initiates lie down on mats close to the sign of their particular guardian spirit. At this point, each initiate is inevitably possessed by his guardian god. Now, the initiate, with the god animating his body, is finally free to eat after the long fast, and often gorges himself on the meat of the animal sacrifice. See also canzo, djévo.
le Bon Dieu
See Grand Maître.
Legba (Legba Ati-bon)
Legba is the most powerful of all the loa. He represents the sun and is the guardian of the gate between the material world and the spiritual plane where the loa reside. All rituals, no matter what their purposes, open with an invocation to Legba, the loa of the gate. Without Legba's permission, no other loa may cross from the astral plane to the material one. Because no loa can pass to the material world without Legba's permissions, only he can permit communication between practitioners of vodou and the loa. The houngan invokes Legba by sprinkling rum on the ground in his honor, tracing his vévé on the ground, and chanting. Due to his wisdom and vast knowledge of the past and future, Legba is often consulted in times of crisis. Legba's symbol is the cross, his color is black, and he is represented in the hounfort by the poteau-mitan and by a sacred tree near the hounfort. He is often associated with the Christian figures, Saint Peter and Christ. His sacrifice is animal bones and marrow, particularly of roosters and goats.
A generic term that refers to all of the spirits, including the loa and the souls of the dead.
Although I refer to the loa as gods for simplicity's sake, they are actually not deities at all, but the immortal spirits of the ancestors or archetypal representations of the natural world and of moral principles, such as love, death, war, and the ocean. They are analogous to the Catholic saints or to angels in Christianity. The entire vodou pantheon of loa is enormous, encompassing thousands of spirits. Many of these loa are simply aspects of one major god, since one loa may have many different names, appearances, symbols, and personalities that represent a slightly different form of that god's fundamental nature. The pantheon can also expand to include new loa in the form of local deities, ancestral spirits, and even presidents and kings. In fact, the original African gods who the loa evolved from were the spirits of actual human beings. Just as a child looks to his parents for guidance, the living looked to their wiser ancestors who had already passed into the spiritual world for advice and help. Some of these spirits were stronger than others, able to give better advice and accomplish better cures of illnesses and curses. If a family's ancestor seemed especially wise and helpful, it soon began to receive offerings from others outside the family and was thus elevated to the status of a local god. The more people who worshiped the god, the stronger he became, until he was brought into the major pantheon of tribal gods. Captured slaves then brought their beliefs in these gods with them to Haiti where they were incorporated into what would eventually become vodou's pantheon of powerful spirits. The word "loa" means "mystery" in the Yoruba language of West Africa, and so the loa are often also called the mystères. Vodou devotees "serve the loa," forming very close personal relationships with these lesser deities. Each loa has his or her own well-defined characteristics, including specific food offerings, colors, numbers, sacred days, chants, mannerisms, and ritual objects. Thus, a practitioner of vodou can serve one of the loa by wearing clothes of the loa's colors, making offerings of the loa's preferred foods, and observing the days that are sacred to the loa. The loa, in turn, manifest their will through dreams, unusual incidents, and spirit possession, which occurs during vodou rituals. The loa are very active in the world and often literally "possess" devotees during ritual. Rituals are practiced primarily to make offerings to, or "feed," the loa and to entreat them for aid or fortune. See also Agoué, Aida-Wedo, Aizan, ancestors, Azaca, Baron Samedi, Brigitte, Carrefour, Damballah-Wedo, Erzulie, Erzulie Dantor, Grand Bois, Guédé, invoking the loa, Legba, Loco, mangé loa, Marinette, nanchon, Ogoun, possession, servi loa, Simbi.
Loco (Loco Atisou, Loco Attiso, Loko, Loko Ati-sou)
Loco is the aspect of Legba that is master of the hounfort, and he represents medicine and the healing arts. He is often invoked to help with healing and to protect against black magic. See also healing, hounfort, Legba.
Macoute (macoutte, makout)
A straw sack carried by country peasants and associated with Azaca, the loa of agriculture. See also Azaca.
Magic in vodou
Vodou is primarily a religion, and while selling love potions and protective charms may be a lucrative side business for a houngan, the priest's primary occupation is still as spiritual leader of his community. So, although so many people associate magic with vodou, its role in the actual practice of the religion is in reality very small. See also black magic, charms, hoodoo, houngan
See Baron Cimetière.
Maît-tête (mèt tèt)
Literally "the master of the head," this term refers to the primary loa who a devotee serves and the one who acts as that devotee's guardian. See also laver tête.
The largest of the three drums used in Rada rituals. See also drumming.
A fully initiated priestess of vodou who is equal in every respect to her male counterpart, the houngan. (To keep things simple, I'll refer to the houngan alone, with the understanding a mambo may also fulfill any of his duties.) See also houngan.
Mangé loa (manje lwa)
The most frequently performed ritual in vodou is one that invokes a particular loa to offer food to him, including animal sacrifices, and to solicit his presence on earth. This ceremony is called mangé loa, "feeding the gods." Food offerings are always placed on a vévé when made inside the hounfort and on a crossroads when made outside. Ritual feeding of the loa nourishes, enlivens, and fortifies the divine spirits and helps the devotees taking part in the ritual to make contact with a particular god. Each loa has special "favorite" foods; the more the ritual offerings are adapted to a particular loa's tastes, the greater the power made available by the ritual. Tasting the offerings increases the power the loa brings, including the blood of animal sacrifice and part of the flour or cornmeal used to make vévés. Libations of favorite drinks -- particularly the expensive Barbancourt rum or the much cheaper clairin, a raw white rum made from sugarcane -- are made by pouring the liquid three times on the ground. See also animal sacrifice, invoking the loa, mangé sec.
The feast for the Dead, a death ritual that is usually held when a houngan, mambo, or hounsi has died. See also death, houngan, hounsi.
Mangé sec (manje sek)
A ceremony where food offerings, but not animal sacrifices, are made to the loa. See also mangé loa.
Marassa (Marasa, Marassah)
The sacred twins who are saluted in every ritual. See also twins.
A powerful and violent female loa of the Petro cult. See also Petro.
Ogoun (Ogou, Ogu)
Ogoun is a powerful warrior god who represents all aspects of power, strength, and masculinity, including war, fire, lightning, politics, and metalworking. His color is red, his symbol is the sword, and in the hounfort, he is represented by a perpetual fire with an iron bar stuck in the middle and in ritual by the ku-bha-sah. His Catholic equivalent is St. Jacques. His sacrifices are red roosters and rum poured on the ground and set afire. Those possessed by Ogoun wear red clothing, carry a sword or machete, and smoke cigars.
The aspect of Ogoun who represents a military general. See also Ogoun.
The aspect of Ogoun who represents the phallus. See also Ogoun.
The aspect of Ogoun who represents stability, order, and authority, particularly in a political sense. See also Ogoun.
The aspect of Ogoun who is the patron of blacksmiths and metalworkers. See also Ogoun.
The aspect of Ogoun who is the loa of lightning and who is descended from a powerful Nigerian god. See also Ogoun.
The aspect of Ogoun who represents thunder. See also Ogoun.
A magical charm used by a bokor in malevolent sorcery. See also black magic, bokor, charms.
Ouete mò nan ba dlo
See retirer d'en bas de l'eau.
See hounsi bossale.
See hounsi canzo.
Monter la tête (monter)
Literally "to mount one's head," this term refers to the act of possession by a loa. A possessed devotee is called a cheval, which means horse; when a loa takes possession, the spirit "mounts" the head of the devotee. See also possession.
The loa; also refers to certain ceremonies. See also loa.
The spirit of the flesh that allows the body to function while alive and passes as energy into the soil after death. See also death.
The loa are divided into several groups, called nations or nanchons, each corresponding to the place where the gods in that nation originated. Thus, the loa of the Congo nation originated in the Congo African tribe, while those of the Ibo nation originated with the Ibo tribe. The two major groups of loa, which have largely absorbed the loa of the other nations, are the Rada and the Petro. Many of the major loa belong to both groups; they have an aspect that represents the Rada nation and one that represents the Petro nation. See also Guédé, loa, Petro, Rada.
See mangé loa.
A musical instrument related to the flattened bells of Africa that is often used in vodou rituals. See also drumming.
The musician who plays the ogan.
A small packet constructed by a houngan that offers protection to its bearer. See also charms.
An altar or altar stone called the pé is located at the center of each chamber inside the hounfort; ritual tools and other items are placed on this platform, which is the height of a man's chest. A jumbled, chaotic assortment of objects that have symbolic meaning within the beliefs of vodou covers the pé, including candles, food, money, amulets and ritual necklaces, ceremonial rattles, pictures of Catholic saints, bottles of rum, bells, flags, drums, and sacred stones. Govis, or clay pots that contain the souls of revered ancestors, also sit on the altar. The altar represents the door between this world and the spiritual world where the immortal spirits reside, and so performing a ritual at the altar can call its god from the spiritual world. The houngan may invoke the loa by leaning upon the pé and calling the loa down into a its clay jar or govi. The priest uses traditional chants to attract the loa in this form of invocation. He can then consult the loa residing inside the govi, asking for advice on matters of importance to the community or requesting that the god to reveal the future. See also bagi, hounfort, houngan, loa.
The peristyle is a roofed but otherwise open space where the public ceremonies take place. It has a floor of beaten earth, and a low wall, four to five feet high, borders it so that curious spectators who aren't a part of the société can watch the ceremonies from outside without making themselves too conspicuous. A perpetual fire burns in the center of the yard, with an iron bar in the middle of the fire representing the forge of the powerful warrior god Ogoun. A model ship hangs from the roof of the peristyle, symbolizing Erzulie, the vodou goddess of love and the moon. See also Erzulie, hounfort, Ogoun.
The Petro are the dark gods, the balance to the benevolent forces of the Rada. By "dark," I don't mean that the Petro loa are evil; just as no person is wholly good or evil, neither is any god. Rather, they are necessary for balance, to perform the acts that the Rada loa cannot accomplish. Petro rites originated in Haiti where conditions were very different than in the homeland of Dahomey, although the roots of the Petro rites, dances, and loa can be traced back to the Congo and Ibo tribes of Africa. The Petro rituals and gods also show the influence of the natives of Haiti, the Carib Amerindians, and an Amerindian may have actually founded the cult, a houngan named Don Pédro. The Petro cult developed because the stability and traditional patterns of the African tribes were disrupted and violated by the brutality of slavery. The gods could no longer take a defensive, passive role; rather, action was needed. As a result, the Petro loa, the patron spirits of aggression and action, were born. The Petro cult gave escaped slaves the organization and moral rage to lead the revolt that freed all the slaves of Haiti in 1804, the only successful slave revolution to have taken place in the New World. The Petro loa are more powerful, quick, and magical than the Rada gods. They are also more violent, demanding, fierce, and practical, and they emphasize death, vengeance, and aggressiveness toward adversaries. They can make quick cures of illnesses and perform powerful acts that the Rada loa are not capable of. However, they will only work for someone if the devotee makes a promise of service to them, which often requires an expensive sacrifice, and the god will take revenge if that promise isn't kept. Petro rituals are characterized by red ceremonial clothing, off-beat syncopated drumming, and frenzied dancing. As sacrificial offerings, they demand hogs, goats, sheep, cows, and bulls; the most common sacrifice to the Petro loa is a pig. A Petro ritual is never held in a hounfort where Rada ceremonies are performed. Although the Petro loa are important to vodou, the gods who are invoked in the overwhelming majority of all ceremonies are the members of the Rada pantheon. Many of these loa do have one or more Petro aspects, as each loa has many faces representing a different but related natural force or archetypal principle. See also balance, Carrefour, engagement, Erzulie Dantor, loa, Marinette, Rada.
Smooth river stones, often called "thunderstones," that are inhabited by the loa and are often placed on the pé. See also pé.
In vodou, true communion with the divine comes through possession, or "the hand of divine grace." Possession occurs when a loa temporarily displaces the soul of a devotee and becomes the animating force of the body. Because possession is the way that the loa make their instructions and desires known and how they exercise their authority, it is a common phenomenon in vodou, and it is thus considered perfectly normal by practitioners of the religion. In fact, devotees deem it an honor when an especially powerful god selects them for possession. Through possession, every vodou devotee not only has direct contact with the spirit world, but actually receives it into his body. Often, the possessing loa is the one invoked at the ritual, although other loa who haven't been called, particularly Guédé, often show up unexpectedly. When a loa possesses a person, for the length of time that the god controls the body, the actions and attitudes expressed are those of the loa and not of the person who is being possessed. A child possessed by an old loa may seem frail and decrepit, while the elderly when possessed by a young loa may dance and cavort without regard to their disabilities. Even facial expressions change to resemble the loa. That's why when a male loa possesses a female devotee, the pronoun "he" is used to describe the devotee, and vice versa. A loa may choose to possess a devotee for many possible reasons. He could possess someone to protect that person from danger or to confer a special power that enables the person to successfully accomplish a difficult task; for example, an ocean spirit may possess someone who has been shipwrecked and who doesn't know how to swim, enabling the person to get safely to shore. The loa may mount a devotee to cure an illness or to prevent suffering. Loa use their horses to give advice, to prescribe a remedy for a problem, or to treat an ailment. They also speak through the mouths of the possessed to point out a forbidden ritual, to warn of danger, or to punish devotees who have angered them in some way. Finally, they often take possession to preside over a vodou ceremony or to receive a sacrificial offering. When a person is possessed, the loa enters the person's body as if with a blow at the nape of the neck or in the legs. The person being mounted struggles against the loa at first, staggering around in circles, crying out, and throwing out his or her arms. The body shakes, the muscles are flexed, and there are often spasms in the spine. Suddenly, the person stops fighting and the loa takes full possession, manifesting the characteristics peculiar to that loa. The houngan can look at a possessed devotee and say which loa rides inside him. The priest acts as an intermediary to summon the loa and to help the loa depart when his business is finished. A loa who mounts a devotee is also required to salute the houngan before going about his business. Possessed devotees exhibit the characteristics of the loa who has taken control, often dressing in strange clothing or cross-dressing. The loa can request his own special emblems, such as costumes, kerchiefs, beverages, or cigarettes; each loa's accessories are kept on-hand in the hounfort in case the loa chooses to possess someone. The symbolic nature of these objects helps the loa to perform his magic more easily. The possessing loa also smokes, drinks alcohol, and eats, partaking of physical pleasures that the spirit cannot normally access. While possessed, a horse often speaks in ancient African tongues called langage, which only other loa can understand, tells the future, and even performs magical acts. He can feel no pain, and can, for instance, walk on hot coals, grasp a red-hot iron bar without pain, or eat fire. The person also exhibits great strength and energy while possessed, followed by exhaustion when the loa leaves. When the loa leaves his horse, the possessed person immediately drops any objects he's holding and slumps to the ground. After possession, devotees fall into a state characterized by complete indifference to the loa's actions during the possession. They are physically exhausted by the loa's powerful presence inside them, especially if one of the major members of the vodou pantheon mounted them. They can't remember what they said or did while the loa possessed them, and so they can't be held accountable for their actions while the loa controlled them. See also loa.
Poteau-mitan (poteau-Legba, poto Legba, potomitan)
The poteau-mitan, or center-post, is located in the center of the peristyle. The houngan salutes this center-post at the beginning of every ritual, and the rest of the ritual revolves around it. A flat-topped base made of cement at the foot of the center-post called the socle serves as a place for food offerings to the gods. In conjunction with the socle, the center-post forms a cross, the symbol of the most powerful of all the vodou gods, Legba. Usually, a whip hangs on the side of the post, representing penitence. The post is painted in bright rainbow colors in horizontal or spiral bands that represent Aida-Wedo, the matriarchal leader of the vodou pantheon. In vodou belief, the top of the post is considered to be the center of the sky and the bottom the center of hell. Thus, the spirits can travel down the post from where they live among the stars, enter the hounfort, and take part in the rituals. See Aida-Wedo, Legba, peristyle.
Put to bed
The Rada are the benevolent, gentle loa who originated in Africa and who represent the warmth and emotional stability of the home continent. The Rada nation got its name from the city of Arada, located on the coast of Dahomey, where many slaves were abducted. Rada rites follow traditional African patterns and emphasize the positive, gentle aspects of the gods. Most of the Rada loa were imported from Dahomey in West Africa, and they reflect their place of origin. Dahomey was a well-organized, stable monarchy founded on agriculture and cooperative work systems. In that setting, the gods played a protective role, guarding the stability of the nation against whatever outside forces might threaten it. Therefore, the Rada gods were essentially benevolent, passive, and paternal. Rada rituals are characterized by the all-white clothing of the devotees and by dignified, stately drumming and dancing, which is always on the beat. At Rada ceremonies, a large fire with an iron bar stuck in the flames, representing the loa Ogoun, perpetually burns. The Rada loa never demand a larger sacrificial offering than chickens or pigeons, although sometimes goats and bulls are sacrificed to them. They will perform services for their devotees without causing any harmful consequences to the person asking the favor, but their services are by definition not very powerful. The majority of vodou ceremonies are of the Rada type. See also Agoué, Aida-Wedo, Aizan, Azaca, Dahomey, Damballah-Wedo, Erzulie, Grand Bois, Legba, Loco, Ogoun, Simbi.
This term means strong or stern and is used to characterize Petro loa. See also Petro.
A ritual in which an object is charged with the power of a loa.
To have command or authority over the loa, or to restrain the loa; generally, only a houngan or mambo attains this level of authority. See also houngan.
The person in charge of maintaining order during rituals.
To invoke, when used in vodou songs. See also invoking the loa.
To ritually send away a loa.
Trees in the yard around the peristyle are sanctuaries, or sacred reposoirs, where some of the ancestor spirits and vodou gods live permanently. One tree in particular is consecrated to Legba, the most important god in the vodou pantheon. These trees are honored as divinities and are decorated with the colors of the god who lives there. A pedestal at the base of each tree holds a lit candle and food offerings for its inhabitant. Often, ritual dances are held around these trees. Heaps of stones or other objects around the hounfort can also serve as reposoirs, as long as the object is consecrated to the use of the god who inhabits it. See also Legba.
Retirer d'en bas de l'eau
After death, the ti-bon-ange must be taken care of in a special ritual presided over by Baron Samedi. A year and a day after the death, the houngan performs a ritual to ensure that the ti-bon-ange is put to rest. If this isn't done, the ti-bon-ange may wander the earth and bring illness and disaster on others, particularly the remaining family members who have the responsibility of caring for the souls of their deceased ancestors. This ritual is called retirer d'en bas de l'eau, "taking the dead out of the water." Because the ritual costs so much, many families may pool their money to hold a mass ritual once a year, and the souls of family members who died during the past year may all be raised at the same time. During the ritual, the soul -- now called an esprit, meaning simply "spirit" -- is raised by the houngan through a vessel of water covered by a white sheet and placed in a special govi. The voice of the dead may speak from the govi or the esprit may briefly possess someone attending the ceremony to express love for family members or even bitterness at being neglected, if they put off holding the ritual for too long. The houngan then places the govi inside the hounfort, where the family can continue to feed the spirit inside the jar and treat it like a divine being. See also ancestors, Baron Samedi, ti-bon-ange.
See animal sacrifice, human sacrifice.
A Saint of the Catholic Church; sometimes used as a synonym for loa. See also Catholicism, influence on vodou.
Salutations in the ritual
After the invocation to Legba, the priest presents water to the four cardinal points. He also makes salutations to Legba, to the Christian Trinity, and to the vodou Trinity of Mystères (spirits), Marassas (twins), and Morts (dead). He pours water in front of the poteau-mitan, tracing a line from the entrance of the peristyle back to the center-post. This post is sacred to Legba and provides an entranceway for the loa to enter the peristyle. Finally, the houngan pours water three times before each drum. After the libations, La Place and two hounsis, or vodou initiates, perform salutations with sequined ceremonial flags and the sacred sword to the four cardinal points, the center-post, and the drums. They salute the houngan and any visiting dignitaries, and then they light candles inside the circle around the center-post. See also houngan, La Place, Legba.
The middle-sized drum used in Rada rituals. See also drumming.
Servi loa (service, servir)
Literally "to serve the loa," this term is used by vodou devotees to refer to their faith. The most important thing to understand about vodou is that practitioners think of their religion in practical terms. They don't believe in vodou; rather, they serve the gods that represent the major forces of the natural world, and so devotees of vodou are called serviteurs. In return, the serviteurs expect the gods to go to work for them, healing illnesses, imparting advice, and providing help in times of need. Because practitioners of vodou are largely poor, they need the gods to help them get through the trials of everyday life. Devotees believe that all things serve the loa and so by definition are expressions and extensions of the spiritual. What is sacred in vodou is not a particular person or place, but rather the moment when the divine is invoked. In vodou, divinity is found in the act of ritual itself, in chanting and drumming and dancing to call the immortal spirits down from the cosmic plane where they live. It is this act of service, and not any magical object or spell, that infuses the practitioners of vodou with divine power. See also loa.
Servir a deux mains
Literally "to serve with both hands," this term refers to someone who serves both the Rada and Petro loa and practices black magic. See also black magic, bokor.
A vodou devotee.
The ritual movement performed by the houngan to the four cardinal points at the beginning of the ritual in recognition of the loa. See also salutations.
Simbi (Sim'bi d'l'Eau)
The loa who represents fresh waters and rainfall and who oversees the making of protective and destructive charms. His symbol is the water snake, his color is green, and his sacrifice is the speckled cock. See also charms.
Snakes are important in vodou as the symbol and servant of Damballah-Wedo, and so sometimes a snake will live in the hounfort or in one of the sacred trees nearby. However, practitioners of vodou do not worship snakes. See also Damballah-Wedo.
Practitioners of vodou come together in a neighborhood community, called a société. The société centers around a temple where rituals are performed and offerings are made to the immortal spirits that are revered in that community. The société is always led by a single priest or priestess, who possesses a wide range of knowledge in religious and practical matters, ranging from telling the future to communicating with the gods to healing the sick with herbal medicines. Vodou sociétés are very close-knit and provide a central organizing structure to small villages in Haiti. A highly malleable religion, vodou rituals and other practices can vary hugely from community to community inside Haiti itself. The structure of the vodou société, the role of the priest or priestess in the community, and the elements of the ceremonies have many basic elements in common. But in vodou, it's perfectly acceptable for a community's traditions, which are passed down from generation to generation, to deviate from the traditions of other communities. See also hounfort, houngan.
The cement base at the foot of the poteau-mitan where offerings to the loa are placed. See also poteau-mitan.
A female bokor, or sorceress. See also bokor.
Soul, components of
According to vodou belief, a human being's soul is made up of five basic components: the corps cadavre, or mortal flesh; the n'âme, or spirit of the flesh; the z'étoile, or star of destiny; and the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, the two major parts of the soul. See also corps cadavre, gros-bon-ange, n'âme, ti-bon-ange, z'étoile.
A drum. See also drumming.
The ti-bon-ange makes up the other half of a person's soul, with the gros-bon-ange. Meaning "little good angel," it is the source of a person's personality. The ti-bon-ange represents the accumulation of a person's knowledge and experience, and it is responsible for determining an individual's characteristics, personality, and will. See also death, retirer d'en bas de l'eau.
A primitive peristyle that is merely an open-sided roof held up by poles. See also peristyle.
An herbal cure administered by a houngan or mambo. See also healing.
The musician who plays the triangle.
As in many West African rituals, twins in vodou are considered to have special powers and are revered because they represent balance and two halves of the same whole. See also balance, Marassa.
The ritual pouring of liquid, such as water or liquor, on the ground for the loa. See also salutations.
Vévés are elaborate designs that symbolize the gods and ancestral spirits. They are painted permanently on the walls of the hounfort, as well as drawn in cornmeal, flour, gunpowder, powdered red brick, chalk, charcoal, or ashes just before a ceremony or the invocation of a god. Usually drawn around the poteau-mitan, on the altar, or on top of a place of sacrifice, the vévé acts like a magnet, obliging the spirit who it represents to descend to earth and appear at the ritual. These vévés symbolize the loa who is being honored in the ceremony, and serve as both a place to put offerings and a magical symbol that calls the loa down to the material plane. These vévés incorporate the symbols of the particular god that they represent: a cross for Legba; a heart for the goddess of love, Erzulie; a snake for the patriarchal leader, Damballah-Wedo; a coffin for Baron Samedi, the spirit of death; and so on. They radiate out from the center-post in a wide circle. Despite the elaborate care and skill with which they are drawn, the vévés are generally destroyed by the end of the ceremony, blown away or swept apart by dancing feet. See also hounfort, loa, poteau-mitan.
Vodou (vaudun, voodoo, vodoun, voudou, voudoun)
The complex body of religious belief that emphasizes a close relationship with the spiritual world and with one's ancestors. The word "vodou" derives from the word "vodu," from the Fon language of Dahomey, which means "spirit" or "god." Vodou originated in the West Indies country of Haiti during the French Colonial period. The Haitian slaves were captured from many different tribes throughout West Africa, but these tribes shared several core beliefs: worship of the spirits of family ancestors; the use of singing, drumming, and dancing in religious rituals; and the possession of the practitioners by immortal spirits. Once living together in Haiti, the slaves created a new religion based on their shared beliefs, but absorbing each tribe's strongest traditions and gods. Influences from the native Indian populations were also absorbed during this formative period. Vodou is still widely practiced in Haiti today, mostly among the poorer peasant classes. Vodou has also migrated with Haitians to many other parts of the world, with particularly strong communities in New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida; Galveston, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and New York City. Each of these communities has spawned new rituals and traditional practices. Worldwide, vodou has over fifty million followers. See also ancestors, Dahomey, loa.
An uninitiated vodou devotee who attends ceremonies, receives advice and medical treatments from a houngan, and takes part in other vodou-related activities.
The voodoo doll is a product of this belief in the power of symbols. These dolls are generally crudely fashioned from wax and incorporate hair or nail clippings from the person who the doll is supposed to represent. Obviously, the doll represents that person, and the hair or nails just ties the doll and the person closer together. The idea is that if you inflict harm upon the doll, the person will experience similar harm. And if the person is hurt, it's probably because he believes so strongly in the power of the symbolic doll that he manifests psychosomatic symptoms, rather than from any real magical effects. Despite the fact that voodoo dolls are almost universally associated with vodou, actual practitioners in Haiti rarely use them, and they are not at all important to the fundamental practices of the religion. Indeed, they primarily seem to serve as souvenirs sold to tourists in voodoo shops in New Orleans. See also magic.
This term refers to the African city of Ouhdeh in Dahomey and is used to designate any loa who originated there, such as Damballah-Wedo and Aida-Wedo. See also Aida-Wedo, Dahomey, Damballah-Wedo.
Zen (zain, zin)
The ritual pots used to cook food for the loa.
Literally "with red eyes," this term is used to describe an attribute of some of the Petro loa, such as Erzulie ze Rouge. See also Erzulie ze Rouge, Petro.
The z'étoile decides a person's destiny and resides in the heavens, apart from the body. It is not of great importance to vodou belief.
A zombi astral is created when a black magician captures the ti-bon-ange of a person during that period when the soul hovers over the body after death. In contrast to a zombie, which is a body without a soul, a zombi astral is a soul without a body. The zombi astral is confined to a glass jar or bottle and performs deeds at the command of the bokor, never allowed to join the land of the dead or achieve a final rest. See also black magic, bokor, ti-bon-ange.
Zombie (zombi, zombi cadavre)
According to vodou belief, a zombie is a dead body that has no soul, and it is always created by a black magician, a bokor. The bokor performs a ritual that causes a person to die. Then, within a short period of time, the bokor calls the person back to life as a soulless body. A significant number of researchers believe that this process of "zombification" is an actual practice, achieved not through magic and ritual, but rather through a combination of powerful drugs and poisons. This potion is so toxic that it merely has to be absorbed through the skin to have an effect. No one knows exactly what the components of the potion are, and the bokors guard the recipe zealously, but it is thought to contain substances from various toxic animals and plants, including the gland secretions of a particular frog, the bouga toad, which are 50-100 times more potent than digitalis and also contain a hallucinogen. Other ingredients supposedly include millipedes and tarantulas, the skins of poisonous tree frogs, seeds and leaves from poisonous plants, human remains (for effect), and four types of puffer fish, which contain tetrodotoxin, one of the most poisonous substances in the world. After administration, the victim becomes completely paralyzed and falls into a coma. To all intents and purposes, he seems to be dead. Sometimes, the victim remains conscious and witnesses his own funeral and burial, but is powerless to stop it. The bokor raises the victim after a day or two and administers a hallucinogenic concoction called the "zombie's cucumber" that revives the victim. When the person is revived, he is so brain-damaged that he cannot remember his name or his family; he has lost the power of speech, and his senses are dull. The human personality is entirely absent. Zombies are thus easy to control and are used by bokors as slaves for farm labor and construction work. Family members can take steps to ensure that the body and soul of a deceased loved one are not misused by a bokor. Often, family members set up a watch in the cemetery for thirty-six hours after the burial, after which time, the deceased can no longer become a zombie of any kind. One way to keep someone from becoming a zombie is to kill the body a second time by stabbing it in the heart or decapitating it. Hoholi, or special sesame seeds placed in the coffin, also prevent the machinations of a bokor. If the hair or fingernails have been after death, however, that is a sure sign that a bokor has tampered with the body. Contrary to what is portrayed in popular movies, the bodies of zombies don't continue to decay, and they don't try to eat human brains. In fact, practitioners of vodou don't fear being harmed by a zombie so much as they are afraid of being made into one. Giving a zombie salt supposedly restores its powers of speech and taste and activates a homing instinct that sends it back to its grave and out of the bokor's influence. But as widespread as stories about zombies are, there are few reliable, documented cases of actual zombies. Unlike in the Night of the Living Dead movies, Haiti is not crawling with reanimated, soulless bodies. The horror and shock value of the zombie story probably chiefly contributed to it being so widely spread, and if bokors ever did once turn people into zombies in Haiti, the practice has probably stopped by now. See also bokor