Have you ever noticed, when you search for information about Vodou, especially from the Haitian perspective, that everything available for reading (or watching, with the rise of Vodou video on sites like Youtube) jumps to the how-to-work-with-named-spirits parts of the practice, but that nowhere is there information about the beliefs and the underpinnings of Vodou as a culture/religion/religiomagical practice?
Why is that?
For Vodouisants in Haiti, the answer is oddly simple; people raised in the culture, its religion, and the religions beliefs are steeped in the information from birth. While the information that is held behind the doors of the djevo/initiation chamber is still held only by those who have passed the doors, the underpinnings of the religion are freely known and culturally accepted because of simple immersion.
When it comes to foreigners, though, the story is different… Haiti is not a country known for cutting edge internet infrastructure, for one, so not much is put online in a form written for people outside of her culture, and as the majority of the populace speaks Kreyol, the common American attitude of only valuing information that can be processed in English/people’s unwillingness to take the time to learn the language when English “sources” look like they’re written from a perspective of “good enough” authority gets in the way. As for those “sources”, the people who come to the religion as seekers and entrants from different cultural backgrounds seem to only want to transmit the HOW; they will give their interpretations of equations where to solve for X, use this spirit, these offerings, perform Y and Z. When differences arise, there are two answers given to the resultant questions, and those answers are almost universally “this is how we do things in my lineage” or “the people in the example you’re comparing me to know nothing of how it is done”. Little attention is ever paid to the WHY.
In my eyes, this is an incredible disservice to the people who want to come to this tradition. They can see the light on the surface of the water and perhaps splash around a bit, but when the common presentation of the tradition is handled in a way that no new entrant has the ability to intuit the deep currents nor know which way they flow… Well, there’s little wonder to how and why so many drown.
On a humorous side, while I know my readers are all around the globe, if you’ve paid attention to American pop culture through shows like South Park (specifically in relation to Isaac Hayes and the Church of Scientology) or Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, we’re about to talk about Vodou’s version of the Xenu stuff and explore the deep beliefs that inform the practice; this is going to be our way of mapping the deep currents so that ocean spray in the sunlight makes *sense*.
Lets start with the most basic (but often the most challenging) piece of the puzzle… Energy.
Vodou teaches that *everything* is made up of energy. This itself isnt much of a stretch to belief, as modern science *also* teaches that everything is made up of energy, but where we start going to what looks like Xenu level is that we still use the word spirit to describe what that most basic energy IS. Remember for a moment that we’re talking about the underpinnings of a religio-magical practice and folk way that stretches into the past to the proverbial dawn of time and that, too, makes sense; our language in-tradition is shaped by the past of the tradition, and the platform of our understanding rests on those ideas and philosophies.
Vodou and Physics both teach us that states of energy can be changed, understood, and aligned along a dynamic of potential energy; to us, potential energy is described almost universally within the tradition with the word Heat. Volatility, action, excitability, all are Heat within Vodou’s lexography. Comparative energy that seems more restful and less active is referred to as Cool, or Cooler than a Hot state.
This does not in itself speak to a state of energy’s inherent strength; if I were to step into, say, the spectrum of visible light and use that as a brief example, we can say that the Color of a particular wavelength of light is determined by the frequency with which the wave vibrates… in Vodou language, *that* is the spectrum of Coolness versus Heat, the examination of it’s volatility.
For the Physics side, a beam of Red light and, say, a beam of Blue light can be equally strong for sake of our example; that strength would be their respective brightness… but the Heat that we speak of would be comparing their rates of vibration; we know that the color Blue in visible light is made of waves that vibrate with a significantly higher frequency and speed than the waves that make Red light. While we think of Blue as a “cooler color” than Red, Vodou’s analysis of the energy itself would look at the waveform as inherently hotter.
Energy can change; we know by life experience that if we apply enough physical heat to water that we can make it boil. Science says that what we are doing is influencing the inherent energy of the water, using an outside energy source to make the molecules of water more agitated; they start from a restful state in which there is motion (we know this because it’s water and not ice) but we apply energy to make the molecular motion faster, and as the molecules vibrate the water warms, boils, and evaporates.
We also know that, through the priciple of Entropy, that if left alone the energy will “cool down” and gradually dissipate. Steam will condense; boiling water will cool to room temperature.
From the Vodou side, we can expand these ideas; we know that all things are made of energy, and that energy can change through either influence or time. Certain actions can be performed to influence forms of energy; just like turning up the knob on the gas will add more heat to the pan on the stove, we know that there are specific things we can do to add more metaphysical heat energy to what we may be working with.
We also recognize that specific outcomes need specific processes; to make the saucepan hot, turn up the gas flame beneath it…. but turning up the volume knob on the stereo is never going to bring your water to a simmer. It takes different but specified forms of working with energy to change the state of the one we’re seeking to influence.
Carrying through the same idea, Vodou teaches that as everything is made of energy, everything can be fed; by that we mean that everything can be made stronger by being given energy under the right conditions, and through careful application of energy, things can be sustained and Entropy kept at bay. Let’s use a summertime marshmallow roast as our example…. that fire? If left to burn, it will burn out as its source of fuel is consumed. We know that we can feed it the occasional log and keep it roasting our ‘smores til long after the fireflies come out; we also know, however, that if it gets access to the trees around us, it will be fed…. and it will grow.
So we also know that care must be taken; we can feed an energy to sustain it, we can feed a small blaze to become a bonfire, or the blast of heat needed to fire clay in a kiln, controlling the temperature into ever higher and stronger Heat, but we also learn the value of a careful eye and control… we really dont want a forest fire on our hands.
Now, as all things are made of energy, essentially all things ARE energy; even science is trying to figure this part out as we speak, but the boundary between states of energy gets called into question when we start looking at smaller and ever smaller views into the basic STUFF we’re discussing. We can see to the molecular, behind it to the particle, and into the sub-particle level, but when we try to theorize what we find in the subatomic world what we find is the quantum world, where string theory is currently the dominant idea…. an interconnectedness of all things behind the barriers we perceive between ideas like water, log, car, potato. There is *something* linking all of these things we perceive as inherently separate, and we know that the smallest views we can see into physical reality are wildly moving little pieces and probabilities that somehow manage to appear to our consciousness as solid, stable, physical objects.
Vodou has a word for that deep background field that holds all things, is in constant motion, and through it’s motion on a subatomic level constantly reweaves and recreates Creation; we call it God.
Bondye in Kreyol; please note this is never pronounced “bon-dee”, and if you hear someone speak it like that just leave the conversation… it’s evident they’ve never been around a native speaker nor the religion itself, and calls anything they have to say afterwards into question. It’s a Kreyol spelling of the French Bon Dieu/Good God, and it sounds more like “Bohn Jeh”…. when you hear “Bon Dee”, just run.
The idea of God in Vodou is often explained by outsiders or those who aren’t a part of the Tradition’s knowledge as distant, uncaring, somehow separate and unconcerned with the processes of life. Those of us inside the tradition have a very different view of seeing Divinity; to us, God is literally both the basic substance that makes up the Universe as well as the Creative Intelligence that is constantly remaking everything, sustaining everything, and keeping the Universe in motion. To us, as all things ARE this basic energy, the idea of God being distant or removed from the world/unreachable and unconcerned wiith the world is almost insulting or at the very least laughable. Everything that exists is a part of God; we too are directly a part of God, there is no distance. Prayer is offered to God in worship and in gratitude, and in Haiti just about any spoken sentence that speaks of possible plans will always end with “si Dye vle”, or “If God wants/if it’s in God’s plan.”
Through Haiti’s history of Colonization and subsequent Revolution, Catholicism became grafted into Vodou as an integral component; outsiders like to focus on forced baptisms of slaves by the Spanish and French, but they miss that several of the component kingdoms that would make up the slave population of the San Domingue colony were already Catholic before their people were brought to the colony. The Kingdom of Kongo, for one, was peacefully converted to Catholicism after talks between King João the Second of Portugal’s monks and King Nzinga a Nkuwu of Kongo, who took João as his baptismal name in 1491, to honor the Portuguese king after the discussions that marked the first time a nation was ever peacefully converted to the Catholic faith. (We’re going to have a HUGE post coming about the History of Vodou; its a bigger topic than this post) Catholicism was not truly imposed upon Vodou the way outsiders imagine; instead, it is one of the many roots that combined through the tradition’s Ancestors to bring us what we have today. While our practice has evolved to use the Catholic ritual structure and system of written prayers, hymns, and songs, as well as the Saints (which we will explore in significant depth in a later post), and functions in symbiosis with the Catholic Church, the deeper feelings of what Bondye is lie underneath the mask of Catholic dogmatism.
This, in turn, is why Catholicism cannot be taken out of Haitian Vodou without the system in essence coming crashing down; Catholicism is one of the central roots the tradition as a whole grew from in the modern era and through the Ancestors who carried it to us in it’s current form… While there are people in the modern era who, for political reasons alone, attempt to present their interpretation of Vodou as free of Catholic influence, their speech focuses solely on the Catholicism of the slave masters while ignoring the Catholicism of slaves who held that faith before even being brought to this hemisphere, alternately insulting and cherrypicking the Ancestors those lineages claim to respect and serve. Many who dont know the deeper history do seem startled by the level of Catholic inclusion in an African Diasporic Religion, but for us it has always been there and cannot be removed without breaking the system down into a cohesion-less soup of component pieces. While the two religions are technically distinct, Vodou exists in symbiotic balance with the Church. (A future post will be dedicated to Vodou and the Church; that’s a bigger topic than I can cover briefly here.)
Vodou does not believe in a Devil; Evil exists, but to us it is not Divine norr is it an integral part of Divinity (We will be exploring Evil as an idea very deeply in a future post, too). As God to us is both in and creating all things, pieces of creation that war with one another are also a part of God, and are not seen as dueling forces in a Manichean duality. All things are energy, all energies are God, and God is in all things but is not limited by the things that contain God.
We’ll leave part one of our deep dive here, to be continued later…. but to sum so far;
- All things are energy.
- All energies can be influenced and changed by outside energy applications.
- All energies are capable of cooling/fading.
- All energies can be thought of as ‘spirit’
- All things can be fed.
- Care must be taken in the application of energy in feeding one energy to another energy.
- God is in all things, and in all energy.
- God is not distant.
- Prayer is constantly offered to God in worship and gratitude.
- There is no Devil in Vodou.
- There is no Xenu in Vodou either, and in case you’ve been digging through this post to see what craziness I was gonna write, I hope the fact that all of this makes logical sense puts us on a very different platform than one you’d see Leah Remini exposing.
- Vodou is deeply tied to Catholicism and exists in symbiosis with the Church.
We’ll get into more of the Vodou deep dive in upcoming posts, as there’s a great deal to explore and clarify as we talk about what the religion in the Vodou religion really is… this is a good start, but this is the first overview and we’re gonna go much deeper than this. Please toss me some comments if you have any questions so far.