Vodou and Progress: History, Language, Structure and Text in Haitian Religion


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Vodou and Progress: History, Language, Structure and Text in Haitian Religion
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Hebblethwaite, Benjamin
Benjamin Hebblethwaite
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Gainesville, Florida
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Caribbean Area, Haiti, Vodou, David Brooks, Christianity, claims about Vodou, Haitian Creole   ( lcsh )
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On January 14, 2010, two days after the catastrophic earthquake that crushed Port-au-Prince and the surrounding towns, the journalist David Brooks published a column in the New York Times in which he claimed that “voodoo” is a “progress-resistant” cultural influence because it spreads the message that “life is capricious and planning futile.” Alongside Brooks, many authors, especially those who profess Christianity, proclaim similarly prejudicial views (for example, see André 2007; DeWitt 2010; Félix 2009; Olivier 2007). In this presentation I look at the historical factors and linguistic policies that have benefitted Haiti’s French-language institutions while suffocating Haitian Creole ones, like Vodou religion. I look within Vodou to show that the practitioners of the religion demonstrate an underlying commitment to progress given their attention to planning ceremonies and initiations, the tight-knit organization of Vodou communities, the formalized ritual and lexical structure, the clearly defined hierarchy, and the rigorous education through teaching and initiation, among other constructive practices. Finally, Vodouists also demonstrate commitment to progress through the publishing of sacred texts or descriptions of aspects of the religion (Marcelin 1950; Rigaud 1953; Wilcken 1992; Beauvoir 2008a & b; Jil & Jil 2009; Hebblethwaite 2012). Commentators like David Brooks do a grave disservice to Vodou’s reputation and it is important to correct the record and show that many aspects of Vodou religion are grounded in a culture of progress and order.
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This PDF is from a presentation that Benjamin Hebblethwaite gave at Duke University on September 28, 2012. This work was partly funded by the NEH Collaborative Grant and the UF Humanities Scholarship Enhancement Fund Grant

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Vodou and Progress: History, Language, Structure and Text in Haitian Religion Benjamin Hebblethwaite, University of Florida September 28, 2012, Duke U. On January 14, 2010, two days after the catastrophic earthquake that crushed Port au Prince and the surrounding towns, the journalist David Brooks published a column in the New York Times in which he claimed that voodoo is a progress resistant cultural influence because it spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. Frantz Zephirin, 2007: The Passage of the Ghedes in the Cemetery hebble@ufl.edu 1


According to Christian critics (Andr 2007; DeWitt 2010; Flix 2009; Olivier 2007), Vodou is Pervasive and dangerous (Felix 2009:xiii). the greatest danger [] is that Vodouists are often married to the lwa (Olivier 2007:102). A scapegoat [] blaming death from AIDS on voodoo. Cast as a satanic power and its lwa are spirits of Satan (Kraft in Louis 2007:ii) Voodoo and double faith [i.e. Christianity + Vodou] enchains and subjects (Olivier 2007:104) Voodoo followers are oppressed by the devil ( Rendall in Louis 2007:16) its [Voodoos] creator, the devil has a plan: [] the perdition of souls far from the kingdom of God (Louis 2007:17) Voodoos plan is to cause trouble everywhere (Louis 2007:17) Voodoo is henotheism = belief in a god creator + serving other gods (Louis 2007:17) Voodooists believe in the immanence of God, Christians in the transcendence of God pantheism [] leads to eternal damnation. (Louis 2007:18) Transforming a Haitian village from poverty in voodoo to prosperity in Christianity (sic) (Dewitt 2010) hebble@ufl.edu 2


Two claims: Poverty & Satan 1. (a ) Vodou is progress resistant (Brooks 2010) and linked to poverty (Dewitt 2010) (b) Written preservation transmits a wellfounded faith unlike Vodun which is an assortment of beliefs created and based on superstition. Written culture and is superior to oral culture (Olivier 2007:104) 2. Vodou is an expression of satanic power (Andr 2007; DeWitt 2010; Flix 2009; Olivier 2007) #2 is not worth addressing at length because fundamentalists of many religious persuasions show hostility to the practices and culture of other religions. the judgment of Vodouists about Vodou is the most important source for research on the religion. scholars do not base their research on what rival religious groups say about each other. hebble@ufl.edu 3


Social science and religious studies counterarguments to #2 that Vodou is an expression of satanic power ( Andr 2007; DeWitt 2010; Flix 2009; Olivier 2007). According to Vodouists Bondye God created the universe and the lwa spirits. The nature of Bondye God is a permanent meditation in Vodou culture. The terms Satan, devil, satanic do NOT belong to Vodous mythological tradition. Bondye has NO diametrically opposed counterpart in Vodou (whereas Christianity does) The description of voodoo as satanic is thus the superimposition of Christian mythology and metaphor where it is unwelcome. hebble@ufl.edu 4


hebble@ufl.edu 5 25 papa 4 198 0.8 26. rele 4 157 0.63 27. lwa 3 149 0.6 29. zili 5 140 0.56 35. loko 4 123 0.49 36. ogou 4 114 0.46 46. danbala 7 99 0.4 52. ogoun 5 86 0.35 53. dlo 3 83 0.33 55. gede 4 80 0.32 60. manman 6 73 0.29 62. abobo 5 72 0.29 65. bondye 6 69 0.28 66. ginen 5 69 0.28 68. wdo 4 65 0.26 69. ago 3 61 0.25 70. fanm 4 61 0.25 77. ayizan 6 58 0.23 78. nago 4 54 0.22 87. koulv 6 53 0.21 92. agwe 4 49 0.2 93. legba 5 49 0.2 94. sen 3 48 0.19 95. lanm 5 47 0.19 96. simbi 5 47 0.19 97. pwen 4 47 0.19 105. zaka 4 43 0.17 110. sobo 4 41 0.17 116. bawon 5 39 0.16 119. balindjo 8 38 0.15 The most frequent Vodou terminology in Hebblethwaites 2012 corpus The Quantitative Text Analysis of all Lexical Items: Andrew Tarter & Benjamin Hebblethwaite The corpus of 641 songs contains: 24, 846 words in all the songs; 1 772 individual (unique) words Ranking Word Length Frequency Percentage


Argument 2 can be classified as a begging the question ( petitio principii = assuming the initial point) Begging the question is a type of logical fallacy in which a proposition relies on an implicit premise within itself to establish the truth of that same proposition Referring to an improvable assertion to prove the assertion. http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question Jesus, Christianity & God VERSUS the lwa, Vodou & Satan This view is begging the question because the GodSatan dualism is Christianitys worldview, not Vodous. It would be like saying Christians have made a pact with the b aka (evil spirits in Vodou) because they do not worship the lwa (!!!) absurd, is it not? >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> However, arguments that voodoo is progress resistant (Brooks 2010) and linked to poverty and illiteracy (Andr 2007; DeWitt 2010; Flix 2009; Olivier 2007) are material and socioeconomic claims and hence falsifiable and worth investigating. hebble@ufl.edu 6


The progress resistant, poverty and illiteracy arguments do not match historical and linguistic realities: Vodou always rose up against slavery and its culture of murder, misery and exploitation The war of independence with France ( 1791 1803 ) decimated of Haitis population and all of the countrys infrastructure. The members of the French colonial state, who were dead or banished by 1803, had never built a single school for slaves in the colony of Saint Domingue (Tardieu 1990; Dejean 2006) Vodou as a parallel powers (Ramsey 2011) Political and legal opposition to the religion kept Vodou private or clandestine, i.e. presidents Boyer, Pierrot and Jeffrard (Ramsey 2011) An important exception includes the rule of Emperor Soulouque ( 1847 1859). As a leading rural institution and culture, it has a tenacious influence hebble@ufl.edu 7


The State, Christianity and Vodou: bifurcated opposition to Vodou Ati Max Beauvoir : We endured 13 persecutions in Haitian history. 13 times they chased after Vodouists and they killed thousands of Vodouists each time. The State and the Catholic Churchs l aws and persecutions against Vodou: 1755, 1758, 1800 [Dessalines], 1835, 1864, 1897, 19151934, 194142 (see Ramsey 2011). Deren ( 1953: 160) notes that Vodou priests had to obtain government issued permits for ceremonies in the 1940s. Other periods of persecution: 1986, 2010. How does an ILLEGAL and PERSECUTED religion reasonably contribute to progress? hebble@ufl.edu 8


What are the prerequisites and conditions of progress? Ati Max Beauvoir continued A foreign concept of progress is foisted on Haiti. Haiti has an empty table and thus progress is lacking and can never compete with the foreign concept of progress. How can Haitians progress if they lack the most elementary means to do so? HAITI IS NOT A SOCIETY WITH ROOTS IN STABLE & GRADUAL SETTLEMENT WITH ACCESSBILE CENTERS OF LEARNING. SLAVERY SOCIETY > DECIMATING WAR OF INDEPENDENCE > LIMITED EDUCATIONAL MODELS > INACCESSBILE & ELITIST CENTERS OF LEARNING POST INDEPENDENCE. New York City Port -au Prince Ati Max Beauvoir hebble@ufl.edu 9


Vodou in the context of Haitian (State determined) language policy: Haitian language policy is upside down (Dejean 2006; DeGraff 2010): the French minority language spoken by 5 10% of the population dominates schools and the state at the expense of the Haitian Creole majority language (see Hebblethwaite 2012). The states pro French minority language policy hinders societal progress far than a religion like Vodou that has long been ignored or persecuted by the Haitian (or U.S.) governments. The majority of Haitian people are isolated from their own state; Haitian Creole speakers and Haitian Vodouists are negatively impacted by this State policy. hebble@ufl.edu 10


Footnote on language p olicy: why instruction in a minority -language fails the nation (1) resource deficiencies prohibit effective French instruction; (1.1) t he Haitian government does not have the money, personnel, or resolve needed to train, place, and retain adequate numbers of French teachers; (1.2) the majority of Haitians lack the time and resources to acquire French because of severe infrastructural and economic constraints. (2) Haitians are linguistically isolated on a regional basis since no neighboring State uses French and they are linguistically isolated from the State apparatus and from the school system inside of Haiti. (2.1) the need for an international language is contradicted by the many small States that successfully employ autochthonous languages; (2.2) Haiti, thanks to Haitian Creole, is linguistically and culturally cohesive; (3) Haitian Creole has a coherent spelling system and an im -pressive corpus of high quality books; and (4) first -language education will greatly expand literacy and the implementation of standards which are multipliers linked to development (Coulmas 1992) (See Hebblethwaite 2012) hebble@ufl.edu 11


Vodou and language policy: Ati Max Beauvoir on Haitis language policy How can one blame Vodou when the entire population has been pushed into the most withdrawn corner of society and called, andey (outside, i.e. rural)? This population cannot be andedan (inside). If the rural/Vodouist Haitian population cannot be andedan (inside), how can it construct within that space? Political and economic power remains ensconced within Christian walls to this day. There has never been a school system for Haitian Creole speakers who are also the vast majority of Vodouists Haiti food drive at St Matthews Catholic church in Charlotte, N.C. >>>>> <<<< The new Catholic cathedral in Hinche hebble@ufl.edu 12


hebble@ufl.edu 13 2 Andedan Haitian Creole schools, Vodou & Christian co existence Andey Haitian Creole & Vodou Andedan, French -language schools & Christianity Status quo: Model for progress and development: Relegation of French as a s econd language in schools


In spite of anti -progressive conditions progress Haitis population flourished in the 19th century, growing from 300,000 to 1,294,400 million in 1901. Vodous oral and initiatory traditions thrived because they were and are rooted in an oral culture founded in advancing spiritual progress discipline and order Vodous legal status has improved with the 1987 Constitution and with President Aristides 2003 Presidential decree that recognizes Vodou as a Haitian religion. The dramatic improvement in Vodous legal standing Waves of books about Vodou have appeared since the 1920s (Price Mars 1928; Courlander 1939; Roumain 1943; Marcelin 1950; Rigaud 1953; Laguerre 1980; Beauvoir, R. 2003; Beauvoir 2008a & b, etc .) hebble@ufl.edu 14


Benchmarks of progress in Vodou? Vodou and Vodouist publishing has blossomed in Haiti, the U.S., and Europe: In fact, the publication of Vodou sacred literature in Haitian Creole predates the publication of Bib la Intellectuals in the early 20th century realized that publishing was the best way to defend the legitimacy of the religion in a world overwhelmed by religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Is Vodou a religion of the book now? Yes and no, Vodou has sacred books, but it cannot have a closed canon because Bondye and the lwa are living and inspiration is unfolding. Vodou can therefore be considered a religion of the Books. hebble@ufl.edu 15


Vodous organization: hierarchy, systematicity and interdependence (anything but capricious!) Vodou religion is hierarchical and it has ranks and positions based upon formal initiation and instruction. The transmission of knowledge is progressive. Vodou hierarchy is a recognition of the degrees of understanding achieved with spiritual maturity and an individual who has passed through all the ordeals and stages of elevation and has become houngan [and manbo] asogwe has undergone a personal characterological development of considerable scope ( Deren 1953:158) Oungan/Manbo asogwe; Bk & OunganBk The Oungan/Manbo is a pivotal figure in a hierarchical structure that is subject to democratic controls ( Deren 1953:176) Ounsi kanzo : (1) asogwe (priest), sou pwen (advanced initate), senp (initiate) Laplas (master of ceremonies and bearer of Ogous sword) Pt drapo (flag bearer) Oungenikon/Andjennikon/Sanba (leader of songs) Ountgi (drummer), ount/Ount (drum/spirit of the drum), ogantye (cow bell player) Kanbizye (server of drinks) Trezorye (treasurer) Odyans (audience) These titles and roles refer the the sosyete Vodou (Vodou congregation) and the hierarchy supports the religious, social and economic dimensions. hebble@ufl.edu 16


The essential (progressive) qualities of a good Oungan or Manbo ( Deren 1953) Spiritually mature experience counts. As a spiritual father or mother, he or she must be wise (Solomons wisdom). Capable of resolving complex spiritual, social, psychological and physical problems. Responsible to the community and to the lwa (178) They are often literate in a culture of illiteracy. Know how to work with those who have political power. Perceptive in relationships; sensitive to psychological subtlety. hebble@ufl.edu 17


The essential (progressive) qualities of a good Oungan or Manbo ( Deren 1953) Possess a degree of social grace and personal charm. Expansive knowledge of the mass of complex ritual detail (161), including hundreds of songs, the lwa and their mythology, prayers and teachings. Knowledgeable in herbalism and healing. Able to distinguish between spiritual and physical illness. For psychosomatic problems, the Oungan guides the patient to heal him or herself. Thus the Oungan teaches self discipline and action (171). Selfless enough to make priests who will stand in equal and competitive relation to him (177 ). hebble@ufl.edu 18


Footnote on the Ounf: not a capricious world, but an expertly planned space (Based on Deren 1953) Well planned and expertly maintained/landscaped. Two trees sacred to Legba serving as the gate. Sacred trees scattered profusely throughout the grounds. Shaded and cool. Well -swept with flower -beds. Delightful pigeons, white doves, chickens and fowl roam the grounds. Walled in by banana trees. Attractive/symbolic shrines, basins, altars, etc. White washed structures (sometimes painted with Vodou art). Cool thatch roofs. Covered dance/worship spaces (peristil) for specific Rites, i.e. Rada, Petwo -Kongo, Ibo, etc. Specific altars for particular Rites. hebble@ufl.edu 19


6 Sacred -space, Initiate -space Potomitan, centerpost around which worship takes place Audience -space; uninitiated, profane 1 2 3 4 5 Structure: Aerial representation of the Vodou ceremonys strict ritual structure this is not capricious The stations: 1. Salutation of the 4 cardinal points. 2. T he potomitan. 3. Ountgi (percussionists). 4. Door of the badji (altar/consultation rooms). 5. The initiated. 6. T he audience. Worship moves counter -clockwise hebble@ufl.edu 20


Advancement in Vodou requires religious and social education The kanzo rite of initiation ( senp sou pwen asogwe ) which lasts a week or longer is an experience of education and acculturation which is rooted in the acquisition of specialized language and knowledge. learning & memorizing songs learning & memorizing prayers and traditions learning dances and how to handle the ason prayer, contemplation, the spiritual journey, death & rebirth Vodou training is stringent in order to produce a spiritually stronger individual ( Deren 1953: 157) Vodou initiates learn songs, prayers ( Lapriy Dy ), litanies, langaj terms, concepts, traditions, mythologies, vvtracing, asonhandling, dancing, etc. Training to be a Vodou priest is the most rigorous initiation experience which requires extensive preparation and initiation (if sought outside the family). Vodou priests greatly value life long learning and specialization! hebble@ufl.edu 21


Brooks (2010) and Olivier (2007): Eat more salt Vodou is NOT progress -resistant Vodou does NOT spread the message that life is capricious and planning futile Vodou: life is precious and planning is essential. Publications are NOT a reliable measurement of progress in religion. Oral culture is not below written culture it is parallel to it. Research about Vodou religion and the publication of its sacred texts has been underway for over 80 years. Haitian Vodou has emerged as a world -leader in African diaspora research publications. hebble@ufl.edu 22


Coda: Come on! Everyone knows that all religions have progessive and regressive aspects! The European Inquisition (R) The European slave trade and its link to Catholicism (R ) The 1685 Code noir that officialized Catholic exclusivity (R) The forced Catholic baptism of all slaves in Saint Domingue (R ): Article II. All slaves that shall be in our islands shall be baptized and instructed in the Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith The Jesuit defense and medical treatment of slaves (leading to their banishment from Saint Domingue) ( P) The collaboration of Vodouist kings in the slave trade (R ) Human sacrifice in Royal African Vodun (R) ( Claffey 2007) Liberation Theology concerned with social justice (P) The integration of women and gays into the Episcopal Churchs priesthood (P ) The translation of the Bible ( Bib la ) into Haitian Creole ( 1985 / 1999) (P) REMEMBER: Your regression is my progression and vice versa! hebble@ufl.edu 23


Colonialism & neocolonialism make Haiti poor, not Vodou Poverty in Haiti is linked to French slavery & colonialism Francophone elite kleptocracy The isolation of Haiti by world powers T he States counterproductive policy that benefits 5% and suffocates 95% T he language policy is economically inefficient because it excludes the majority of the population Vodou and Haitian Creole have been pushed away from power and opportunity in Haiti. For most of Haitian history, Vodou has been illegal and hence no possible cause of Haitis development status Vodouists want progress, education, science, knowledge, and healthcare but they have been marginalized andey hebble@ufl.edu 24


Learn more at the UF -Duke Vodou Archive: Vodou Archive homepage: http ://www.dloc.com/Vodou Chromolithographs: http ://www.dloc.com/AA 00008694 Ft Marasa: http ://www.dloc.com/AA00010156 Racine Figuier lyrics: http://www.dloc.com/AA00012789 hebble@ufl.edu 25


References hebble@ufl.edu 26 Beauvoir, Max. 2008a. Lapriy Ginen Port au Prince: Edisyon Prs Nasyonal d Ayiti. Beauvoir, Max. 2008b. Le grand recueil sacr ou, R pertoire des chansons du vodou Haitien Port au Prince: Koleksyon Memwa Vivan. Beauvoir, Rachel, and Didier Dominique. 2003. Savalou E Montr al: ditions du CIDIHCA. Claffey, Patrick. 2007. Christian churches in DahomeyBenin: a study of their socio political role Leiden: Brill. Courlander, Harold. 1939. Haiti Singing Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Courlander, Harold. 1939 1940. Unpublished manuscript Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. DeGraff, Michel. 2010. Language barrier: Creole is the language of Haiti, and the education system needs to reflect that. Boston: Boston Globe. http ://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/ 2010/06/16/lan guage_barrier_in_haiti/ ( 16 June 2010) Dejean, Yves. 2006. Yon lek l tt anba nan yon peyi tt anba. Port au Prince: FOKAL. Dewitt, Andrew. 2010. Give your best: How Willem Charles transformed his Haitian village from poverty in voodoo [sic] to prosperity in Christianity. Charleston, S.C.: Mountain Top Ministries Flix, Emmanuel. 2009. Understanding Haitian Voodoo. LaVergne: Xulon Press.


References Hebblethwaite, Benjamin, and Joanne Bartley et al 2012. Vodou songs in Haitian Creole and English = Chante Vodou and krey l ayisyen ak angle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. French and underdevelopment, Haitian Creole and development : Language policy problems and solutions in Haiti. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 27:2 ( 2012), 255 302. Jil, Dyeri M., and Ivwoz S. Jil. 2009. Svis Ginen: Rasin, rityl, resp lan Vodou. Davi, Fla.: Bookmanlit Laguerre, Michel. 1980. Voodoo Heritage. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications. Louis, Andr. 2007. Voodoo in Haiti Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing & Enterprises Marcelin, Milo. 1950a. Mythologie Vodou (Rite Arada), vol. 1 Ptionville: ditions Canap Vert. Marcelin, Milo. 1950b. Mythologie Vodou (Rite Arada), vol. 2 Ptionville: ditions Canap Vert. Olivier, Fritz. 2007. The Relevance of Christian Education in Haiti: A New Vision. USA: www.booksurge.com PriceMars, Jean. 1928. Ainsi parla l'oncle ... ; essais d'ethnographie [Port au Prince]: Imprimerie de Compi gne Ramsey, Kate. 2011. The spirits and the law: vodou and power in Haiti Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rigaud, Milo. 1953. La tradition voudoo et le voudoo hatien: Son temple, ses mystres, sa magie. Paris: ditions Niclaus Roumain, Jacques. 1943 ( 2007). Le sacrifice du tambour Asst(r). Port au Prince: ditions Presses Nationales dHati. Tardieu, Charles. 1990. LEducation en Hati de la priode coloniale nos jours Port au Prince: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps hebble@ufl.edu 27