Vodou: Surviving the Empire
Posted by djaloki on April 9, 2008
Honor and Respect.
This article is a contribution to the efforts of information and education of the general public already undertaken by others about the Vodou worldview. Vodou can be described as an ancestral religion practiced today by more than a hundred million people in Africa and in the Americas. I will briefly present some of the basic tenets of the Vodou worldview and the history of its demonization by religious and political European powers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I will also suggest that Vodou holds the potential for reconciliation between the great revealed Western and Eastern religions, advanced modern science and the Shamanic/animistic worldview.
The word Vodou is derived from the Fon language, which took it from the Ewe language, both of which are spoken in West Africa (Benin, Togo and Ghana). The word means “invisible life force,” usually transcribed as “spirit.” The Ayitian (or Haitian) Kreyòl spelling and pronunciation (Vodou) is widely used in the academic community. The word Voodoo, best known in the North American mainstream consciousness, often refers to a distorted image of this spiritual system. This image was created by the demonization campaign against Vodou and maintained by the media and the Hollywood film industry. Variant spellings are also used: Vodun and its own variants (Vodoun, Voudoun, Voudon, Voudo…), Vaudou (French spelling), Vudu (Ewe and Spanish spelling).
Vodou 101: Elements of the animistic worldview
On the details of the observable practice, there are differences between Vodou in Benin (where it is the official national religion), in Ayiti(*) and in Louisiana. Nonetheless, the underlying worldview remains the same. This is not unlike the observable differences between the various denominations of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which share similar views on God, Heaven and Hell, the world, human beings and sin. Furthermore, the Vodou paradigm is also similar to others that are not usually described by the word Vodou, namely the animistic and Shamanic worldviews.
Here is an overview of some of the basic principles of Vodou, rooted in the animistic worldview:
- the Divine source is the originator of the invisible world and the visible world, and the rules that govern them;
- everything that exists in the visible world has its essence in the invisible world, hence the term “animism”, used in Western languages to describe the belief system in which plants, animals and minerals can have a soul or a consciousness;
- the invisible world is as real as the visible world (if not “more real”) and also more expansive;
- the invisible and visible worlds are in constant interaction;
- in the invisible world everything is connected to everything else;
- everything, visible or invisible has its own specific “power,” or energy;
- birth is a transfer from the invisible world to the visible world;
- death is a transfer from the visible world to the invisible world;
- human beings can consciously and unconsciously operate in both the visible and invisible worlds;
- just as visible entities, invisible entities are creatures of the Divine; they are called spirits;
- spirits can bring vision, knowledge, healing and power to human beings;
- like visible entities, spirits may be unhealthy (ill, wounded, disempowered or temporary lost from the Divine order);
- like visible entities, unhealthy spirits are potentially dangerous for human beings;
- some spirits are so powerful in energy that they may be dangerous for human beings even when they are healthy;
- human beings can communicate with spirits under Divine rules and help channel their powers to and from the visible world;
- human beings can access and influence the invisible world through visible means, and the visible world through invisible means; these practices constitute what is called magic;
- deceased people are spirits called ancestors; they are closer to human beings than other spirits and can serve as intermediaries between the latter two;
- human beings have free will, they can choose to act for healing, balance and order, or for destruction, and with respect or arrogance;
- every act is returned multifold by the universe, human beings are accountable for their own acts;
- human beings evolve through acts of respect and compassion for everything that exists, healing and reverence for the Divine and the Divine’s creations.
The animistic worldview is probably at the root of the most ancient religions of humanity. It is the backbone of the Native Shamanic cultures of the past and the present, from the Tungus of Siberia, through the Aborigines of Australia, the Ainou of Japan, the Norse, the Wiccan and the Pagans of Europe, the Akan and the Zulu of Africa, to the Algonquins, the Maya, the Neo-Pagans and the Creoles of the Americas to name just a few. Vodou, of course and its cousins that are practiced by various people of African descent in the Americas (Santería, Lukumi, Candomblé, Umbanda…) are animistic in essence. The African form of Vodou (without syncretization with European or Native American elements) is considered to be ten thousand years old.
The Legacy of the Roman Empire
In Europe, the leadership of the Christian Church and of the Roman Empire combined their powers relatively quickly in the 4th century. Constantine I, known as the first Christian Roman emperor (306-337), convoked the Council of Nicea in 325, which established the doctrine of the Church that was to be adopted by the whole of Christendom. St Siricius was the first bishop of Rome to bear the titles of Pope (384-399) and Pontifex Maximus, long before the Holy See was established in Rome. These titles and functions of the bishop of Rome became a tradition still observed today. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity as the only legitimate imperial religion, ending state support for the traditional Roman religion. In 392 he prohibited the practice of Pagan religions. He is now remembered for having initiated the official state repressive campaign against Pagans and heretics. Combining their respective strengths, the Church and the Empire became a powerful ruling institution that gradually gained control over politics, religion, sciences, finances and social life around the Mediterranean Sea.
After the fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century, the Roman Church maintained its political, financial and moral power. During the era of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire (800-1806), the Holy Emperor was crowned by the Pope. During the Middle Ages, the Church launched the Crusades, also called Holy Wars, against the Muslims. Pope Innocent III introduced the Inquisition initially against the heretics, those who did not abide by the Church’s doctrine, including Christians, but also animistic peoples of Europe. Traditional women healers, the Witches, were targeted, who the Inquisition accused of being Devil worshippers. These allegations against Pagans and Witches were imprinted in the mainstream consciousness and still are today to some extent… The Inquisition was also used against the Jews of Europe and the first Renaissance scientists who were challenging the models of the cosmos, the earth and the human body dictated by the Church.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus was officially mandated by the Pope and sponsored by the Spanish Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to conquer new lands for Spain, gain new souls to Christianity and come back with gold. He established the first permanent European settlement of the New World on the island of Ayiti(*) inhabited by several million people, mainly Taino. The combination of extremely harsh forced labor, tortures, murders, epidemics, as well as despair driven suicide, lead to the decimation of the Native people of Ayiti in a few years.
In the 1540’s, the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas denounced the ill treatment given to the Taino by the Spanish. He undertook the task of convincing the political and religious powers in Europe that African people were more fit to hard labor than the Natives of Ayiti, and that their enslavement would be justified if it meant that they would be evangelized and redeemed. The timing seemed perfect and the idea germinated.
Origins of the demonization campaign against African culture and spirituality
The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the slave-based production in the Caribbean were becoming the most profitable activities ever conducted by the Europeans. The colonial society became prosperous beyond hopes. That new prosperity was the engine of the economic expansion that pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and later to the “Siècle des Lumières” (18th century Age of Enlightenment) of the wealthy kingdoms of Western Europe. In order to be practiced openly, the enslavement of Africans had to be morally justified to the European public opinion. To that effect, most of the vilifying stories and attitudes previously used against the Pagans, the Witches and the Jews were adjusted to fit the Africans. Renaissance artists like Michelangelo were commissioned by the Church to replace the numerous images of the Black Madonna and child with white ones in Western Europe (Black Madonna images are still common today in Eastern Europe).
From the 1700’s, the biblical story of Noah and the curse of his grandson Canaan, son of Ham (Genesis 9:18-27), began to be used to explain that Black people were cursed by God and bound to be the slaves of other people. The old stories against Witches and Jews and that of Noah were intertwined and fit together to work against the Africans, whose spirituality came to be seen as a collection of superstitious evil practices in the European public opinion.
In the colonies, a complete dualistic paradigm was created and imprinted in the public consciousness, based on the simple underlying concept that whatever comes from, or can be connected to Europe is pure, superior and godly (the color white, Caucasian skin color and anatomical features, European languages including Latin, Spanish, French and English, Christianity, the Church, the Western culture, wealth, European political powers and their representatives, slave owners, the urban way of life, the power of domination…) Vice-versa, whatever can be connected to Africa is inferior, immoral, superstitious or evil (the color black, Negroid skin color and anatomical features, Kreyòl and African languages, animistic cultures, the tribal way of life, poverty, African drumming and dancing, the African cultures and spiritualities, herbal remedies, ancestor worship, spirits, magic, psychic phenomena and extrasensory perception, resistance against slavery, strong emotional ties within extended families and communities, life close to nature, Vodou…)
Crack down on Ayitian Vodou
Extensive publications have described the continuous attempts of the Church to destroy Vodou in Ayiti, both psychologically and physically, peaking in several successive “anti-superstition crusades”. These include the one waged under the first US military occupation of Ayiti (1915-1934) and the infamous campaign of the “Rejetés” in the 1940’s, with its spectacular public burning of Vodou temples and sacred objects and trees, reminiscent of the Autodafés of the Inquisition.
The situation remains basically unchanged today. Though the Catholic Church has apparently stopped to try openly to eradicate Vodou from Ayiti, the dualistic paradigm still underlies the attitude and discourse of its representatives. As in any “low intensity warfare”, the manipulation of the public consciousness and opinion has been a crucial weapon and quite efficient, both inside and outside Ayiti. US-based evangelical churches are now taking the lead in this operation they call a spiritual war. The godly-Church-versus-satanic-Vodou paradigm is sponsored and relayed by schools, Sunday schools, aid and development organizations, private corporations, books and magazines, radio, TV, Internet, movies, and the press. It is ingrained within the popular language and culture. Misinformed educators, parents, writers, scholars, artists, journalists, priests, pastors, preachers, missionaries, religious and lay people become agents of the misinformation campaign, often unintentionally.
It is undeniable that mistakes, ill-intentioned practices and crimes have been and are being perpetrated under the name of Vodou, just as has happened in the name of Christianity, Islam, democracy, charity and science. It would not come to mind to try to eliminate these human systems though, if one had not nourished an irrational fear against them. Besides, an open-minded look at Vodou, as taught to and practiced by millions of decent good-hearted honest intelligent people, might bring some light to its potential for healing and reconciliation between systems that have traditionally been at odds, or at least apparently.
Christianity, Shamanism, Hinduism, Quantum Physics and Vodou
At first sight, Christianity in North America looks shockingly different from Christianity in Ethiopia, in Greece, or in Brazil. The beliefs and lifestyle of an American Christian may even be closer to those of an American Vodouist than to those of a Brazilian Christian. This occurs as religions evolve, adapting to the cultures of their adepts. In order to analyze a religion from a global perspective, one should first try to strip that religion from its cultural clothing and look at its core precepts, to the extent that this is theoretically possible.
All over the world, Christianity is known for its message of obedience to the Divine, love for one’s fellow human beings, and the story of Jesus as the ultimate example to be followed. According to Vodou practitioners and initiates, this message is in concordance with the Vodou precepts of respect for the Divine and for all the Divine’s creations, including human people. Furthermore, several of the main socio-spiritual functions of Manbo and Oungan (Vodou priestess and priests), such as communicating with spirits, spiritual teachings in parables and spiritual healing, are reported to be performed by Jesus in the Bible. Although only a thorough study would give a more precise evaluation, it seems fair to say that at the core, Christianity and Vodou point to similar precepts of knowledge and ethics.
Vodou contains many elements of Shamanism. When Manbo and Oungan meet Shamans from other places, they often understand each other even if they don’t speak the same language. That is the reason why some of the Taino traditions were so easily incorporated into Ayitian Vodou, to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to identify in Ayitian Vodou today what comes from Africa and what comes from pre-colonial America. So, it seems also fair to say that Vodou is a particular form of Shamanism expressed in one particular culture.
Similarly, a comparison has been made between Vodou and Hinduism, or the Eastern worldview in general. The deities or spirits representing different aspects of the Divine, the relationships with ancestors and other spirits, the accountability of human beings for their deeds and the universe’s response to them, the power of intent, thought and word over material reality, the important influence of intangible energy on the material plane are all elements present in both Vodou and Hinduism. Here again, when stripped of their respective cultural packages, Hinduism and Vodou describe similar worldviews.
There is growing academic interest for the possible links between quantum phenomena and events that are expected and observed in Vodou settings, although they are apparently inexplicable by traditional Western science. What quantum physicists call the “quantum weirdness” theoretically applies only at the subatomic scale, but Vodou phenomena like apparent remote perception and influence, or the apparent influence of human intention on tangible external events, strongly suggest that quantum phenomena also occur at the human scale, and that the knowledge taught in Vodou allows people to harness some of them. This may also be true of other spiritual traditions, including Christianity, but what is interesting with Vodou is the frequency and intensity of those phenomena on one hand, and the fact that the system is not based on any required creed or faith on the other hand. These phenomena are observed, and may be experienced, by non-practitioners as well.
Could it be that quantum physics, a science at the edge of advanced modern Western knowledge has the possibility to rationally validate and allow Westerners to understand Vodou, regarded as somewhat opposed to science and knowledge in the Cartesian Western paradigm? It is too early to answer this question with certainty, but it is fair to say that the worldview suggested by quantum physics, and so different from the traditional Western worldview, is strikingly congruent with the Vodou worldview. This also suggests that Manbo, Oungan and Shamans all over the world may have known how to access the quantum field with their mind for millennia, this very quantum field that top level modern scientists are still trying to access with subatomic particle accelerators and computers. The quantum field is also known as implicate order of causation, unified field, single superfield, quantum vacuum, or zero-point field.
Vodou 901: The seeds of the future Theory of Everything?
From its origins possibly rooted in the most ancient human religion, through and despite the demonization campaign organized by the Western powers of the Middle Ages, Vodou has not only survived the Empire, but holds the potential of the great reconciliation and reconnection between the cultures of the East, the West and the South, between science and religion, between ancient ancestral wisdom and advanced modern knowledge. It may be holding the seeds of the Theory of Everything sought by researchers since the philosophers of the Antiquity, to modern thinkers like Albert Einstein, Brian Greene and many holding a holistic vision of life and the universe.
If truth will set us free, we will all remain in bondage until Vodou regains its place of credibility and respectability among the great systems of human knowledge. If we want to leave a decent world for the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren to live in, we urgently need to reach out to each other, beyond our idiosyncrasies, our religions and our politics. We must garner all possible wisdom available to human beings in order to operate the shift that will allow us to survive the self-destructive process we have put in motion. For that matter, Vodou may have some vital insights to offer.
Djalòki J.L.B. Dessables is a cross-cultural consultant, paradigm shift coach, engineer and apprentice interfaith minister – ordination June 2008 – from Ayiti(*) (Haiti). Both Christian and Vodou traditions are strongly practiced in different parts of his extended family. He believes that the time has come for the shift of global human consciousness prophesied by many ancient peoples. His intention, through his consulting, coaching, workshops and lectures, is to help create a sustainable multicultural global society showing reverence for the diversity of life and valuing inclusive excellence among people and institutions. He has been giving international lectures and workshops on the Vodou worldview and the current global shift of consciousness. Djalòki lives in Port-au-Prince, Ayiti.
(*) Ayiti: Pronounced AH-EE-TEE. Correct spelling and pronunciation of “Haiti” in the Kreyòl language. It is also one of the original names of the island currently known as Hispaniola and comprising the countries of Ayiti (Haiti) and the Dominican Republic. The Kreyòl spelling is used in this text to avoid the energy of hate suggested by the spelling and pronunciation of “Haiti” in English. The author also uses a free spelling for the derivative Ayitian, for “Haitian” (Ayisyen in Kreyòl).
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