Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo

July 7, 2004

The ceremony begins with a Roman Catholic prayer. Then three drummers begin to play syncopated rhythms. The attendees begin to dance around a tree in the center of the yard, moving faster and harder with the rising pulse of the beat. The priest draws sacred symbols in the dust with cornmeal, and rum is poured on the ground to honor the spirits.

One woman falls to the ground, convulsing for a moment before she is helped back to her feet. She resumes the dance, moving differently now, and continues dancing for hours. It is perhaps no longer she who is dancing: She is in a trance, apparently possessed by Erzuli, the great mother spirit.

It is an honor to be entered and "ridden" by a Loa, or spirit. In Haiti these rituals are commonplace: Voodoo is the dominant religion.

"One common saying is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo," said Lynne Warberg, a photographer who has documented Haitian voodoo for over a decade.

In April 2003 an executive decree by then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sanctioned voodoo as an officially recognized religion.

"It is a religion in the same way Judaism or Christianity is," said Bob Corbett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. "Voodoo doesn't have a sacred text, a church, or a hierarchical structure of leaders, but it is very similar culturally."

Ancient Traditions

Voodoo, meaning "spirit," may be one of the world's oldest ancestral, nature-honoring traditions, according to Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon, a member of OATH, the Organization of African Traditional Healers in Martinez, Georgia.

Some anthropologists estimate that voodoo's roots in Benin—formerly Dahomey—West Africa may go back 6,000 years. Today an estimated 60 million people practice voodoo worldwide.

At a voodoo ceremony, believers gather outdoors to make contact with the Loa, any of a pantheon of spirits who have various functions running the universe, much like Greek gods. There is also a responsibility to care for beloved and deified family spirits and to honor a chief god, Bondieu.

Messages From the Spirits

Continued on Next Page >>


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