Voodoo N Politics

This is an interesting one. While looking for something on my Google Drive this morning, I fell upon this essay I wrote in 2008, back when I was a graduate student in Paris. My younger self asked me to share so here goes.

Voodoo N Politics


It used to be said Haiti was 90 per cent Catholic and 100 per cent voodooist. This statement was never, of course, entirely accurate, but it did nevertheless emphasize the fact that the duality in Haitian religious history has never been a confrontation between two separate groups of people. While voodoo is the religion most of the Haitian people practice, they do so, not instead of, but as well as, following the Roman Catholic faith. And the situation is so intertwined that almost all voodoo adherents would call themselves Catholics, and most Catholics practice voodoo.

Voodoo consists in the worship of God (Bondye or GranMèt) and the spirits (lwa). It is a reaction to the extreme colonial rule ban on African religions. Infringement led to drastic sanctions such as the dreaded “whitening” – that would be skinning just shy of bleeding – in case a Negro was found worshipping any other God than the Christian one. The enslaved thus managed to trick the masters into believing they were praying, say the Virgin Mary, while in fact, they were praying Erzulie, voodoo’s feminine principle. This way, they have been able to assert their ethnic identity while making it possible for the slaves of different plantations to meet one another. The trick worked so well that the white colonials, while aware of widespread « superstition » among the slaves, thought of voodoo simply as a popular dance performed to drumbeat and seem to have missed the religious (and potentially political) dimension of voodoo.

The precise role played by voodoo in the slave revolt of 1791 and in the ensuing period is a matter of dispute among historians. What is certain is its centrality to the social life of the Haitian community. A response to religious and political oppression by the French colonialists, the Voodoo religion developed as an underground religio-political institution. It has, since then, remained true to its roots, and can be seen, throughout history as a causal connection to many changes (I) as well as a functional link between political factions and the Haitian society (II).

I – A causal connection

A – A disruptive force

1- A political instrument of liberation

Voodooists’ use of religion as a political instrument of liberation throughout Haitian history illustrates the fact that the sacred can legitimately play a disruptive role in situations of profane oppression. Were it not so, the enslaved would not have had to place their hope for liberation in the hands of their l was who they believed were certain to triumph over the oppressive White religion. Were it not so, liberators such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines (the first emperor of the independent Haiti) would never have been canonized and venerated as Voodoo spirits. The pantheon of lwas eventually became so politicized that Voodooists today perceive the supernatural world as a politico-military structure wherein the lwas of the « government of God » are recognized by such titles as General and Emperor.

2 – The power of prophetic leaders

Interestingly enough, this hierarchy does not translate into voodoo practice. There is no central figure, no Voodoo pope to establish a standard doctrine or ritual. Nonetheless, the various Voodoo cults United themselves repeatedly for the purpose of winning their liberation from French colonialism. Most Maroon leaders were Voodoo priests who saw themselves as prophets representing the lwas. Able to attract large followings, these charismatic leaders incited the enslaved to revolt by sabotaging plantation property and joining the Maroons. In 1791, for instance, an entranced Voodoo priest informed the lwas worshipers that the spirits wanted their assistance in liberating the enslaved.

B – The Haitian Revolution

1- From slavery to freedom

Typically historians date the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution with the uprising of the slaves on the night of August 21st 1791. Even though there are many reasons to suspect that the revolution was already under way, the entry of the slaves into the struggle is certainly an historic event.

The shortest account one typically learn of the Haitian Revolution is that the slaves rose up in 1791 and by 1803 they had driven the whites out of Saint-Domingue (the colonial name of Haiti) and declared  the new Republic of Haiti independent. While this is certainly true, the Revolution was much more complex. At that time, several revolutions were going on simultaneously, all deeply influenced by the French Revolution which began in Paris in 1789. A much better (and longer)  account would have to do at least two things:

  1. Analyze the antecedents of the revolution and clarify some of the complex and shifting positions of the various interest groups which participated in it.
  2. Follow the earliest days of three revolutionary movements:
    1. The planters’ move toward independence.
    2. The people of color’s revolution for full citizenship.
    3. The slave uprising of 1791

This being the first of four essays on Haitian Politics, these shall be developed in the next installment: Haiti’s Many Revolutions*.

For several years the slaves had been deserting their plantations with increasing frequency. The numbers of Maroons had risen dramatically and all that was needed was a spark to ignite the pent up frustration, hatred and impulse toward independence. This event was a Petwo Voodoo service.

2- The Bois Caiman ceremony

Traditionally the voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caiman, is presented as the inspiration for the slave revolt and highlights the role of voodoo as a crucial factor then as well as in the later revolutionary drive for independence

During the Haitian revolution, and again strikingly, as we shall see, under Papa Doc, voodoo proved to be a political glue and a potent force capable of communicating between the leaders of the revolt and the great mas of enslaved. Certainly the revolution succeeded in large part because the houngans were capable of arousing and providing discipline to the enslaved separated though they were from each other by distance and background.

II – A functional role

A – A skillfully used instrument

1- A force to reckon with

It certainly is ironic that when Haitians won their independence from the French colonialists in 1804, they adopted the religion of the oppressors – Catholicism – as the official faith, while the religion that had helped liberate them was forced underground. This ambiguity of formally recognizing the Catholic Church while legally forbidding the practice of Voodoo, meanwhile using the services of the voodoo church in matters of health and politics, has been a fundamental point of contradiction in the relations between the native church and the state throughout the history of Haiti.

Because the Haitian state had never recognized Voodoo religion as a legitimate institution, it remained an invisible theocracy involved in Haitian political processes as a voice speaking for the underclass and against the exploitative Catholic elite. The situation led to an often-neglected interplay between voodoo (vodou) and voodoo priests (houngans) in the political and social transformation of Haiti, neglecting the existence of a functional link between political factions and voodoo institutions. This Vodooization of Haitian politics was, arguably, a simply a means of exploiting the local institution of the masses still relegated to minority status but, as Laguerre put it, « [this] politicization basically means the recognition of the Voodoo church as a centre of power in the local community and of the Voodoo priest as a broker on behalf of his congregation ». The more prominent, although not the only, illustration of this fact can be found in the Duvalier era.

2 – The Duvalier Era

Francois (« Papa Doc ») Duvalier used voodoo to mobilize and then to entrench his increasingly authoritarian regime (1957-1971). Under the first Duvalier, houngans became vote gatherers and then, as Papa Doc’s government turned brutish and repressive, so did members of his paramilitary security brigade, the dreaded tonton macoutes. Religion and religious practices were brought into the bosom of the state; Duvalier embraced and employed the people’s superstitions and fears, in the process becoming a kind of super houngan capable of mesmerizing his foes and destroying the fabric of Haitian political life. In turn, the houngans and their pursuits were legitimized and were allowed to practice their long-derided religion openly. Duvalier came to power as a populist, a friend of the masses. To the houngans he was a restorer of religion and a solid champion of the rituals of the oppressed.

However, if ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier succeeded in attracting elements of the voodoo establishment to his regime, the apparent disdain of ‘Baby Doc’ may have contributed to his unpopularity among the country’s black majority and to his subsequent downfall.

This balancing act between disdain and recognition has been consistent throughout the Haitian History; the perception of voodoo being often a matter of how one conceived or wanted to project the national identity.

B – A matter of national identity

1 – The case against voodoo

Despite its inspirational role in the 1791 revolt, the early leaders of Haitian independence were critical of the practice of voodoo. Toussaint had gone so far as to ban all dancing, outlawing religious and social gatherings at night. Dessalines forbade religious dancing, and occasionally punished voodoo worshippers with death. Christophe too attempted to suppress voodoo and to reintroduce Christianity into the northern kingdom; eager that Haiti be recognized by other countries as an independent and respectable nation. Under Pétion and Boyer this repressive policy of the black rulers seems to have been relaxed, and in the absence of an organized Catholic church the beliefs and practices of the voodoo cult easily established themselves among the masses.

Voodoo remained relegated to relative invisibility for three principal reasons. First, negative myths perpetuated by the international press have pressured the Haitian government to disassociate itself from the religion. Second, the Catholic elite, embarrassed by Voodoo, desire greater « civility » in their society. Third, the Catholic Church has been pressuring the government to outlaw Voodoo, in part because they perceive it as unfriendly competition and intolerable. Such intolerance led to the infamous ‘campagne anti-superstitieuse’ of 1941, when the Catholic Church and the government united in a ruthless and violent attempt to wipe out the religion, under President Lescot.

2 – The rehabilitation of voodoo

Surely, in the past, many Haitian writers, particularly those of the elite class, have denied that voodoo is seriously practiced and believed in Haiti. Hannibal Price, for example, insisted, in his De la rehabilitation de la race noire par la République d’Haïti, that the Haitian population is sincerely devoted to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, and made little mention of the voodoo cult. Other writers have condemned the cult as superstitious and evil. The development of a more sympathetic approach to voodoo was to a considerable extent due to the labours of Jean Price Mars, whose epoch-making study of Haitian folklore, Ainsi parla l’oncle, was published in 1928. Of utmost importance was the illusion of the speech that started it all, Boukman’s Prayer:

BonDye ki fè solèy

Ki klere nou anwo

Ki soulve lanmè

Ki fè loray gwonde

BonDye zot tande

Kache nan nyaj

E la, Li gade nou

Li wè tout sa blan fè

Bondye blan mande krim

E pa nou vle byenfè

Men Dye ki si bon an

Odonen nou vanjans

Li va kondwi nou

Li ba nou asistans

Jete potre dye blan

Ki swaf dlo nan je nou

Koute rèl libète ki nan kè nou

This rally cry and exhortation to the enslaved to abandon the white man’s slavery friendly God to the freedom demanding one of our ancestors laid bare the crucial role of Voodoo in our quest to liberate ourselves from oppression. Once it was acknowledged, there was no turning back.


Duvalier’s voodooization of politics, although it was merely an attempt to protect its authoritarian regime played a notable role bringing the religion to light, making it less “shameful” and therefore acceptable. Since then, voodoo’s acceptance as a religion has been growing in the Haitian society. In the year 2003, the Haitian State, under the former priest and former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, recognized voodoo as a religion and as such, allowed voodoo priests to perform weddings, baptisms and funerals, with the same legality that has been, for long, the Catholic Church’s prerogative

The essay was written in support of a live in-class presentation. A detailed plan was distributed to the other students in the conference. It included reading suggestions as well as a voodoo lexicon. Our knowledge of our own ancestral religion being often lackluster, I have elected to share them with you as well.

 Further (suggested) readings

The most recent book on the subject would be Michel Laguerre’s Voodoo and Politics. More a collection of disparate articles than a coherent study, the book contains valuable insights into the sociological complexities of Haitian voodoo. It may serve as a useful introduction to the topic but might mislead as well as inform. The best chapters are, I believe, the ones that draw on field work, particularly those about pilgrimage, the Bizango secret society and the Duvalier regime.

However, the best discussion of the political role of voodoo is arguably Remy Bastien’s « Vodoun and Politics”; a highly interesting piece [actually a chapter of its collaborative book with H. Courlander, Religion and Politics in Haiti (Washington, DC, 1966)], where the author emphasizes the unifying function which voodoo has played in the past. He also illustrates the way in which many politicians have used the primitive beliefs of the people to further their own ends, and points out how Duvalier practically brought the movement under state control.

For the intellectually and culturally curious, there are a number of books and articles dealing with voodoo beliefs and practices, including Alfred Metraux’s Le vaudou haitien (Paris, 1958); Melville J. Herskovits, Life in a Haitian Valley (New York, 1937); Milo Rigaud, La tradition voudoo et le voudoo haitien (Paris, 1953); Louis Mars, La crise de possession dans le vaudou: essais de psychiatrie comparee (Port-au-Prince, 1946).

A quick voodoo lexicon

The one God, creator of heaven and earth, Bondye (literally Good God), is recognized and believed in, but so are a large number of spirits or lwa, each of which has generally accepted characteristics and concerns, and is capable of good and evil acts. It is possible for these lwas to possess a devotee – who then becomes their chwal – during a voodoo assembly. These religious assemblies take place in a temple known as a hounfor, and are presided over by a priest (houngan) or a priestess (mambo). The lwas are called using ephemeral designs made with cornmeal, flour, mostly for the pacific rada spirits, whereas, gun powder is sometimes used for the warrior spirits of the petwo rite.

Fun facts

As you now know, religious mythology and language have been used by the Duvalier regime to further its agenda; hence, the posters on many cars which had a picture of the president with the words « Ecce Homo » (traditionally applied to Christ). Another well-known poster showed Jesus with his arm around Duvalier saying « I have chosen him. » But this is not unusual in Haiti. During his « election campaign » in 1950 Paul Eugène Magloire was received into one of our cathedrals by the bishop with the words: « Art thou he that should come or do we look for another? » More tellingly, in the last presidential campaign, one of the presidential candidates – a popular evangelist pastor – presented himself as “chosen by the Almighty to lead the country”. The people, it seemed, didn’t get God’s memo. 

* I most likely will not publish this one or the others. I haven’t seen it this morning and won’t go looking for them. I am only publishing this here essay because I like the serendipity of it all. 

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