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1 Vodou: A Religion that words cannot describe? Shayna Finkelstein University of Florida Vodou is a nonprescriptive religion without a written moral code or strict defin ition There is no complete written history of Vodou practitioners. Several reasons serve to explain the scarcity of religious texts in Vodou. This quality has not always benefitted the reputation of Vodou but writing about Vodou in a way that accurately depicts the culture and history i s no easy task. The histories of Haiti and Vodou a re inextricably linked and as such both contain periods of silence (Dubois 2001:95) When slaves were brought to Haiti from Africa they were forbidden from writing or documenting and so their history was not recorded in the way Western thinking believes i t should have be en This reflects a substantial difference between the oppressor and the oppressed: white EuroAmerican culture is concerned with the accuracy of the record Vodouists are more concerned with the vitality and retention of their history (Brow n 2001: 19). Over time the elders have passed on the practice of Vodou to the ir children (Hebblethwaite 2012: 1) The histories have been passed down orally through stories, memorized songs and revelation through the lwa Dayan (1995:35) describes possessions as rituals of history. Another way to retain memories is through association with a landmark like a found altar that will remain and serve as a reminder of the past (Dayan 1994:13) Through serving the spirits a h istory and morality has been created that cannot be found in books (Dayan 1994: 12) However it is specifically because of this unique history that the silence about Vodou and Haiti should be broken (Dubois 2001: 95). Because there wa snt a codified text associated with the religion until Max Beauvoirs book in 2008, it has been easier for writers and directors to embellish exaggerate and even fabricate customs of Vodou. For example, one of the contributions to the negative stigma attached to Vodou is Wa de Daviss bookturned horror movie directed by Wes Craven: The Serpent and the Rainbow which shows practitioners engaging in black magic to turn people into zombies (Dubois 2001: 93). Things like voodoo dolls and black magic give the false impression of knowledge (Cosentino 1996: 8). Scholars since the 1990s have attempted to dismiss the reputation that has haunted Vodou. Such is the case with the term Vodou itself. New scholarship spurred the change from the negatively associated term voodoo to Vodou which is more similar to the Creole pronunciation (Dubois 2001: 93) This is not to say that complete disclosure of Vodou customs woul d settle any disapproval people have with the culture. Certain customs rituals or practices of Vo dou could certainly make some people cringe. Donald Cosentino (1996) writes of his experience with opening up Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou in UCLAs Fowler museum. The painting Mardigras at Fort D imanche by Edouard Duval Carrie dep icts the Duvailer family and their attendants in the torture chamber dressed in black with black sunglasses: the markers of the tonton makout. Baby D oc dons a frilly dress and bears a pistol in his lef t hand. But most shocking are three bleeding hands nailed to the wall a nd a fourth hand clearly sticking out of Mama Simones (Papa Docs widow) basket (Cosentino 1996: 8). This painting sparked debate because it might contribute to the stereotype of human sacrifice. Mama Lola, a well known and highly respected Vodou healer and expert said the painting must be included because it showed it just the way it was (Cosentino 1996: 8, 10).

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2 One way of trying to represent Vodou is through the lyrics of the songs of the religion. The volume and diversity of the songs of Vodou offer a great look into the past and present of Vodou because the songs change as the people and circumstances change an d they tell the story in the voices of the practitioners themselves (Hebblethwaite 2012:3). Even though some of these songs have been written down and translated, the songs are constantly being composed, altered and forgotten as the community in which they are sung evolves. (Hebblethwaite 2012:2) But even once these songs are put into writing they do not convey the powerful drums or the intensity of a possession (Hebblethwaite 2012:5) Perhaps it is because the spirits of Vodou cannot be understood in and confined to literary form (Dayan 1994:18) Possession must be experienced for full understanding and cannot be adequately captured by merely observ ing and recording. In Mama Lola: A Priestess in Brooklyn Karen Mcarthy Brown tells the stories of five generations of Mama Lolas family of healers. In this book Brown allows herself to become personally involved in Vodou to gain t he full depth of understanding despite conventional ideas about remaining objective as an anthropologist. However even this understa nding can only speak to her own experi ences and interactions with Vodou (Brown 2001: 11). She goes on further to say that being able to blend and interact with a culture is different from being a ble to write about that culture (Brown 2001: 13). Even after 35 years of friendship with Alourdes Brown still knows that the stories Alourdes has told her cannot be replicated in written text (Brown 2001: 17) Even though scholars have made great strides in the documentation of the history of Vodou, the record will never be fixed entirely because as a revelatory reli gion things change at a quick pace (Dayan 1994: 16) Any Vodou writings can only be understood in their context The religion is not codified so the religion adapts to the people and circ umstances that surround and interact with it to maintain harmony. Vodou is cons tantly changing as the people who serve the spirits and the spirits themselves continue to develop. Vodou is a way of life and is lived differently by each and every practitioner and only through personal involvement in the Vodou culture through possession, ritual and song can scholars hope to shed light on the mysteries of Vodou.

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3 Bibliography Brown, Karen McCarthy. 2001. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Cosentino, Donald J. 1996. Doing Vodou. Article in African Arts Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 1, 8, 10, 12, 14 Dayan, Joan. 1994. Ezrulie: A Womens History of Haiti. Article in Research in African Literatur es Vol. 25, No.2, pp. 531 Dayan, Joan. 1995 Haiti, History and the Gods Berkeley: University of California Press. Dubois, Laurent 2001. Vodou and History. Article in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol.43, No.1, pp. 92100 Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. Vodou Songs: In Haitian Creole and English. Philidelphia: Temple University Press.


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 Material Information
Title: Vodou: A Religion that words cannot describe?, Shayna Finkelstein
Series Title: HAI3930, ANT3930, LAS3930, REL3938
Physical Description: Course Material
Creator: Raitano, Megan
Publisher: Hebblethwaite, Benjamin
Raitano, Megan
Felima, Crystal
Place of Publication: University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
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Subjects / Keywords: Caribbean Area   ( lcsh )
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Acquisition: Collected for University of Florida's Institutional Repository by the UFIR Self-Submittal tool. Submitted by Megan Raitano.
Publication Status: Unpublished
General Note: This is a collection of student essays from the Haitian Vodou class offered at the Universtiy of Florida. These essays are the results of a combination of in class material and independent research on individually chosen topics. The writing styles, citation styles, and views expressed in the essays are established by the students and do not necessarily reflect those of the professor or the Archive.
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Holding Location: University of Florida
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Vodou: A Religion that words cannot describe?
Shayna Finkelstein, University of Florida

Vodou is a non-prescriptive religion without a written moral code or strict definition.
There is no complete written history of Vodou practitioners. Several reasons serve to explain the
scarcity of religious texts in Vodou. This quality has not always benefitted the reputation of
Vodou but writing about Vodou in a way that accurately depicts the culture and history is no
easy task.
The histories of Haiti and Vodou are inextricably linked and as such, both contain periods
of silence (Dubois 2001:95). When slaves were brought to Haiti from Africa they were forbidden
from writing or documenting and so their history was not recorded in the way Western thinking
believes it should have been. This reflects a substantial difference between the oppressor and the
oppressed: white Euro-American culture is concerned with the accuracy of the record Vodouists
are more concerned with the vitality and retention of their history (Brown 2001: 19). Over time,
the elders have passed on the practice of Vodou to their children (Hebblethwaite 2012: 1). The
histories have been passed down orally through stories, memorized songs and revelation through
the Iwa. Dayan (1995:35) describes possessions as "rituals of history." Another way to retain
memories is through association with a landmark like a found altar that will remain and serve as
a reminder of the past (Dayan 1994:13). Through serving the spirits, a history and morality has
been created that cannot be found in books (Dayan 1994: 12). However, it is specifically because
of this unique history that the silence about Vodou and Haiti should be broken (Dubois 2001:
95).
Because there wasn't a codified text associated with the religion until Max Beauvoir's
book in 2008, it has been easier for writers and directors to embellish, exaggerate and even
fabricate customs of Vodou. For example, one of the contributions to the negative stigma
attached to Vodou is Wade Davis's book-turned-horror movie directed by Wes Craven: "The
Serpent and the Rainih,,\i which shows practitioners engaging in black magic to turn people into
zombies (Dubois 2001: 93). Things like voodoo dolls and black magic give the false impression
of knowledge (Cosentino 1996: 8). Scholars since the 1990's have attempted to dismiss the
reputation that has haunted Vodou. Such is the case with the term "Vodou" itself. New
scholarship spurred the change from the negatively associated term "voodoo" to "Vodou" which
is more similar to the Creole pronunciation (Dubois 2001: 93).
This is not to say that complete disclosure of Vodou customs would settle any
disapproval people have with the culture. Certain customs, rituals, or practices of Vodou could
certainly make some people cringe. Donald Cosentino (1996) writes of his experience with
opening up "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" in UCLA's Fowler museum. The painting
Mardigras at Fort Dimanche by Edouard Duval-Carrie depicts the Duvailer family and their
attendants in the torture chamber dressed in black with black sunglasses: the markers of the
tonton makout. Baby Doc dons a frilly dress and bears a pistol in his left hand. But most
shocking are three bleeding hands nailed to the wall and a fourth hand clearly sticking out of
Mama Simone's (Papa Doc's widow) basket (Cosentino 1996: 8). This painting sparked debate
because it might contribute to the stereotype of human sacrifice. Mama Lola, a well-known and
highly respected Vodou healer and expert said the painting must be included because it showed it
"just the way it was" (Cosentino 1996: 8, 10).









One way of trying to represent Vodou is through the lyrics of the songs of the religion.
The volume and diversity of the songs of Vodou offer a great look into the past and present of
Vodou because the songs change as the people and circumstances change and they tell the story
in the voices of the practitioners themselves (Hebblethwaite 2012:3). Even though some of these
songs have been written down and translated, the songs are constantly being composed, altered
and forgotten as the community in which they are sung evolves. (Hebblethwaite 2012:2) But
even once these songs are put into writing they do not convey the powerful drums or the
intensity of a possession (Hebblethwaite 2012:5). Perhaps it is because the spirits of Vodou
cannot be understood in and confined to literary form (Dayan 1994:18). Possession must be
experienced for full understanding and cannot be adequately captured by merely observing and
recording.
In Mama Lola: A Priestess in Brooklyn Karen Mcarthy Brown tells the stories of five
generations of Mama Lola's family of healers. In this book Brown allows herself to become
personally involved in Vodou to gain the full "depth of understanding" despite conventional
ideas about remaining objective as an anthropologist. However even this understanding can only
speak to her own experiences and interactions with Vodou (Brown 2001: 11). She goes on
further to say that being able to blend and interact with a culture is different from being able to
write about that culture (Brown 2001: 13). Even after 35 years of friendship with Alourdes
Brown still knows that the stories Alourdes has told her cannot be replicated in written text
(Brown 2001: 17).
Even though scholars have made great strides in the documentation of the history of
Vodou, the record will never be fixed entirely because as a revelatory religion things change at a
quick pace (Dayan 1994: 16). Any Vodou writings can only be understood in their context. The
religion is not codified so the religion adapts to the people and circumstances that surround and
interact with it to maintain harmony. Vodou is constantly changing as the people who serve the
spirits and the spirits themselves continue to develop. Vodou is a way of life and is lived
differently by each and every practitioner and only through personal involvement in the Vodou
culture through possession, ritual, and song can scholars hope to shed light on the mysteries of
Vodou.









Bibliography

Brown, Karen McCarthy. 2001. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkely and Los
Angeles: University of California Press.

Cosentino, Donald J. 1996. Doing Vodou. Article in African Arts, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 1, 8, 10,
12, 14

Dayan, Joan. 1994. Ezrulie: A Women's History of Haiti. Article in Research in African
Literatures, Vol. 25, No.2, pp. 5-31

Dayan, Joan. 1995 Haiti, History and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dubois, Laurent. 2001. Vodou and History. Article in Comparative Studies in Society and
History, Vol.43, No.1, pp. 92-100

Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. Vodou Songs: In Haitian Creole and English. Philidelphia:
Temple University Press.