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Manuel Durand-Barthez (Toulouse) [BIO]

Voodoo as Culture. An Attempt at a Transcultural Definition


Voodoo may be considered as a psycho-cultural phenomenon present in Africa, in the West Indies, in Brazil and in North America. The proper origins of Voodoo are not determined, despite some prudent, even skeptical allusions to ancient Near-Eastern cults which may have been propagated by "contamination" in quite unknown circumstances.

The problem of deterritorialization is a significant characteristic of Voodoo. As a result of conflicts or alliances, a territory can be enlarged or diminished, may also grow as a metastasis, through, for instance, exile, due to the slave trade or modern migrations. In these conditions, foreign gods, even enemy gods, can be "phagocyted".

Such a "phagocytosis" may proceed in the syncretism as means of self-immunization against the enemy power, so that it allows the captive community to slip into a new way of life generating emancipation. In the Haitian case, the slaves did not invoke an avenging god : they trusted their own gods who infiltrated "deities" of the opposing camp. Deities, in this case, are Christian saints, substitutes of their Loas (spirits).

Two main traditions may be emphasized here: the Fon (Dahomey) and the Yoruba (Nigeria).

As far back as 1658, catechisms call the Christian God "Vodu" and Jesus "Lisa". Lisa is the male and white twin brother of Mawu, the black sister, whose name is mentioned in a letter written to the king of Denmark, in the Fon language, by Popo slaves living in the West Indies. Mawu and Lisa are, then, the constitutive parts of the entity called Voodoo.

The Yoruba recognize a similar couple : Orishala (Obatala, Orisa-nla) and his wife Odudua. Their relation with Olorun is variously defined according to the legends: dependence or precedence. They reign over the minor gods. The Yoruba may have suggested to the Christian missionaries that Jesus was allied with such minor deities.

The capital and religious center of South-Western Nigeria, Ifé, is one of the principal cities that emerged at the end of the first Millenium at this latitude. The Haitian devotees travel spiritually to Ifé. The voodooic representation of the African motherland is La Ville-aux-Camps, a mythic land situated under the poto mitan of the hounfort (temple), the central pillar, and deep in the Earth.

Historians have studied the different phases of conversion to Christianity on the African continent at the beginning of the slave trade. Thus, a Jesuit missionary in Saint-Domingue at the beginning of the 18 th century writes about animist Congolese, who were actually converted to Christianity, even if they did not apprehend the faith clearly; Senegalese, who were Moslems, and the Ardas (from Arada or Allada, a Dahomean city, capital of a kingdom that played a major part in the evolution of Voodoo), who were animists and practiced the cult of the Snake. The Ardas have a common language: Fon. So, there is a monotheistic (rather recent and artificial) Christian community, another (more specifically characterized because better settled and more ancient) monotheistic group: the Moslems, and finally: an animistic majority. In the French territory of Saint-Domingue, they are ruled by the Code Noir (Black Code, promulgated on the 10 th of March 1685), article 2 of which prescribes baptism.

Haitian Voodoo has amalgamated, under the influence of Dahomean ideas, religious concepts brought to America by Bantus (Congolese and Angolans) and Sudanese of the Manding groups (Bambara, Diola, Soninke) as well as by Achanti, Ewe, Haoussa and Peuhls (of the Kamitic race), Ouoloffs, Fons and Yoruba."

In Haiti, the plantation was not an appropriate place for the development of a maquis. The voodooic cement, which helped the action of freedom fighters, matured among the maroons. They converged in the famous ceremony of Bois Caïman (near Le Cap Français, today: Cap Haïtien, Northern Haiti), in the night of the 14 th of August 1791, when the leader Boukman presided over the Voodoo ritual which induced the insurrection of the 22 nd of August. Under such conditions, Voodoo may have contributed substantially to making Haiti the first black republic in the New World (1804).

On each side of the Ocean, men have taken over Voodoo in order to integrate it into the sphere of power. The ancient kingdom of Danxomé (approximately the actual Benin) had been built on a dynamic relationship between royal and popular Voodoos. The Abomean dynasty conquered different territories through the robbery, pacification and regulation of their Voodoos. These deities are particularly influential in modern southern Benin. When the Marxist President Mathieu Kérékou took power on 26 October 1972, he neutralized the Voodoo community of the South, being himself a man of the North. Little by little, he had to give up the requirements of the "anti-witchcraft" ordinance of 1976: the deficiencies of hospital care signified the rehabilitation of the herb doctors belonging to the Voodoo community and, during a period of drought, the President consented to call Daagbo Hunon, a supreme chief of the Voodoo cult. Until 1989, Kérékou, the man of the North, had to manage with the southern Voodoo which appeared as a counter power. His successor, Nicephore Soglo, organized the first International Festival of Voodoo Arts and Cultures at Ouidah in 1992.

Haitian president Duvalier’s attitude towards the Concordat signed in 1860 was very firm. During the political campaigns of 1950 and especially of 1957, the houngans (priests) were invited to collaborate. Some of them studied at the Institute of Ethnology, which was marked by the "noirist" influence. Some houngans were Tonton macoutes (Volunteers of the National Security – VSN), for instance, the highest authority of the District Artibonite, in order to neutralize the influence of its bishop. Some higher officials had their own Voodoo oratories in popular suburbs. Voodoo temples were considered as propaganda centers arranged in a well organized network, operated by cooperative and even matrimonial relations. But the Duvaliers (father and son) were clever enough not to promote a national Voodoo Church. They just took over control of that entity from inside, for example, in local councils or in rural development projects. Censorship and police repression were relayed by a large number of houngans, who were killed after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. His father had been installed into the pantheon of Voodoo and had played a prominent part in the national Masonic Lodge.

Voodoo is in itself alliance and conjunction. It cannot be reduced to One nor to the multiple. It is not made of segments or units but of dimensions, or rather, of moving directions. Voodoo is a submerged reef, crossing the Ocean. Through that metaphor, we should like to suggest a rhizomatic structure of Voodoo; unlike the tree, the rhizome is fundamentally convergence and alliance, not filiation.

Through the Voodoo, maroonage and syncretism seem to have performed a crucial role in the modern Afro-American movement. Nevertheless, we may find today a process of slow necrosis of the Christian components and of the historical preeminence of the Haitian maroonage. Are they not just two dimensions, possibly related, of the voodooic rhizome?



Laguerre, Michel S. Voodoo and politics in Haiti. Basingstoke; London : Macmillan Press, 1989.

Lombard, J. «Le culte de possession en Afrique noire et le bori hausa» Psychopathologie africaine 3.3 (1967): 419-439.

Métraux, Alfred. Le Vaudou haïtien Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

Roland, Pierre. «Caribbean Religion: The Voodoo Case» Sociological Analysis 38.1 (1977): 25-36.

Tall, Emmanuelle Kadya. «De la démocratie et des cultes voduns au Bénin». Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 35.1 (1995): 195-208.

Thebaud, Frantz. «Katholizismus, Vaudou und Ideologie im sozio-Kulturellen Entwicklungsprozess der Republik Haiti» Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Sonderheft 13 (1969): 122-135.

Thornton, John K. «On the trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas» The Americas 44.3 (1988): 261-278.








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