The Cultural Setting: Morality in Haitian Vodou
by Houngan Aboudja
“Chak moun ki rive, vini ak moun pa li.”(Each person who arrives, comes with a person of his own)
-common Haitian proverb
The Vodou religion and culture is a rich and complex paradigm. It is a religion practiced by some nine million people in the western hemisphere, most of them in the country of Haiti, whose lives are shaped by the beliefs and practices of this vibrant religion and rich historical tradition. It is the oldest, least understood, and historically, the most maligned of all Afro-diasporic traditions. The term “Vodou” encompasses a variety of cultural elements –individual practices and creeds, a complex system of folk medicine, a structure for community justice, a fertile oral tradition, a rich iconography that has nursed Haitian art, a wealth of metaphors of political affirmation (Dayan, 1997).
Haitian Vodou is a religion that was born out of struggle and revolution, a religion of resistance that gives collective strength and identity to the disenfranchised. It is a religion of the people, not of the privileged. Karen Brown accurately noted, “Haitian Vodou is not a religion of the empowered and the privileged.” Haitians live with “…an open-eyed acceptance of finitude…one reason the Vodou spirits (the lwa) have emerged as whole three-dimensional characters. The oppressed are the most practiced analysts of human character and behavior, and Haitian traditional religion is the repository for wisdom accumulated by a people who have lived through slavery, hunger, disease, repression, corruption, and violence -all in excess.” (Brown, 1991). In fact, just to call oneself a Vodouwizan means to be in active revolt against all that which is oppressive. These experiences continue to serve as the defining foundation of spirituality for the devotees of Vodou.
The faithful come to the Vodou for all manner of issue. Vodou heals; Vodou protects; Vodou solves problems, and binds people in strong, healthy family units. Through a complex set of myths and rituals, Vodou relates the life of the faithful to the spirits (called lwa) who govern that life. It instills in its devotees the need for good character and self-examination, and it uplifts the downtrodden who have experienced life’s misery and misfortune. It provides an explanation for death, which is treated as a spiritual transformation, a portal to the sacred world beyond, where productive and morally upright individuals, perceived by devotees to be powerful ancestral figures, can exercise significant influence over their progeny. In short, it is an expression of a people’s longing for meaning and purpose in their lives (Desmangles, 1992).
Vodou is at once communal, but also supports the flower of individual expression. It is a way of life, a way of understanding creation, a way of communing with God, a means of connecting with Spirit, and with other people. Vodou means to take responsibility for one’s own actions in life. It is not static, but a living, evolving, organic tradition; one which occupies every moment of the lives of its adherents. The Vodou teaches that nothing is given to man directly from the hand of God. Everything, which is received, every blessing, is passed through the hand of one’s neighbor. Therefore, if a man does not know his neighbor, he does not know God. If he does not love his neighbor, he does not love the Good Lord who created him. This is the conceptual foundation of communality in Vodou culture. The common Kreyòl maxim, Vwazinaj se fanmi tou (literally, “the neighbor is family also.”) succinctly describes this concept. Vodou gives meaning to life. It provides a holistic way of existing, a complete culture, immediately based on the relationship between man and the spirits who intercede before God.
“Everything is Vodou for us. It’s not only drumming, dancing in a ritual. No. Everything we do is a ritual. Even [being here with you] is a ceremony. Because what I’m talking about here, you don’t see it, but you will understand. It’s on a spiritual level. It is a kind of communion, connecting my spirit with your spirit. Vodou is all this. All day long.”
-Mme. Mimerose Beaubrun of Boukman Ekspiryans
Human beings occupy a central position within the Vodou worldview, which is both anthropocentric and humanistic (Michel 1995). This is why the Vodou is concerned with the betterment of human existence and the improvement of conditions on earth through the interaction with the spiritual world and the purposeful veneration of the lwa and ancestors. Here it should be noted that the concept of “belief” in Vodou differs greatly from its connotative usage in English. The English word belief suggests an intellectual activity by which one may or may not choose to identify with a system of thought (Deren, 1972), and Vodouwizan would never think of believing in something in the manner of identifying with a system of thought or philosophy.
One’s spirituality can never properly be the object of casual scrutiny by skeptics, such as academicians. As a tradition, Vodou allows no room for skepticism, which is regarded as the consequence of an ambivalent [or incomplete] attempt to establish rationally the design in the cycle of successive events, to debate the relationships between their parts, and to question the divine hand in their purpose. Further, skepticism, according to Vodou, is the outcome of an improper or otherwise faulty apprehension over what should admittedly be self-evident: the world harbors powerful entities (lwa) that are forever active in human lives, and that such entities are the cause of all occurrences in the mechanical operation of the world (Desmangles, 1992).
Thus, when asked if they “believe” in the Vodou and its spirits, Vodouwizan typically will reply that they “serve the lwa”, or that they “serve the mysteries of the world”. This tells a great deal about the outlook of Vodouwizan regarding the nature of their religion and religious observances. As Maya Deren noted, “[Vodou] must do more than give moral sustenance; it must do more than rationalize [the devotee’s] instinct for survival when survival is no longer a reasonable activity. It must do more than provide a reason for living; it must provide the means for living. In consequence, the [devotee] thinks of his religion in working terms.” (Deren, 1972). Thus, Vodouwizan do not conceptualize the religion in abstract or intellectual terms but in practical ones. For its faithful, Vodou is expected to satisfy needs, to render results. There is no place for mysticism or other inconsequential philosophical activities.
The Vodou is moral and ethically aligned religious tradition. However, the way in which morality is defined in Vodou culture is different than that commonly found in western civilization. In order to understand the Vodou, one must necessarily understand the culture within which it operates. Failing understanding of this will always mark an individual as an outsider and therefore untrustworthy. Here it is important to note that, what is meant by Vodou culture is not necessarily the same concept as the current social politic found in the country of Haiti today. In many ways, these two are in conflict and the current political climate, however corrupt, exists due to reasons having nothing to do with traditional spirituality and culture. No, it exists due to other forces, foreign and domestic, socio-economic and geo-political. It has nothing to do with those values prescribed by Vodou culture.
In Vodou, a moral person is defined as someone who “does what they can, at the appropriate time, to the degree with which they are able, and in according to their position in their own community” (Brown 1991). This is a simple concept based on the idea of the interconnectedness of a given community of family and/or friends. It is a simple concept, which demands of the individual full accountability for their actions, guaranteeing that one cannot successfully dodge responsibility for the same. This affirms the importance of understanding the concept of “family” in Vodou culture as central to the understanding of its morality. Here, individualism is notably suppressed in favor of a collective “personhood” wherein the individual is given identity, solidity, and protection in a turbulent world by means of a thick weave of relationships which include other human beings, as well as, the lwa, and clan ancestors. An individual becomes a “real” person only through his or her interaction and relation to others. In fact, one may be defined as “mature” by being attentive and responsible in ones relationships with family and community. This interconnectedness of community, a thick web that includes the living, the dead, and the lwa, presupposes the supremacy of the totality over individuality and is the basis for “morality” in Vodou culture and tradition. Truly it is the family, not the individual that is the smallest social denominator. To consider oneself as wholly self-sufficient, or to have no “people” (no family or community), would be typically considered a dangerous position to be in, as the individual cannot exist in isolation from others. Further, such a position would be immediately suspect; the idea being how exactly can one survive in such a way if not by some illicit activity?
Relationships then are considered of premier importance. However, by their very nature they are quite fragile, and it is within this complex relational network that problems commonly arise, and the mending of such problems is frequently the focus of Vodou healing rites. Because these networks extend beyond the living to include the lwa and the dead, the Vodou healer must explore a vast and often entangled web of relationships in order to find the troubled strand which is putting stress on the whole fabric (Brown, 1991). But this is what Vodou does, it mends rifts, heals wounds, and it helps the faithful to live, and to prosper.
In light of this, it is fair to say that what we call “Vodou culture” exists as a holistic concept, a holistic paradigm. Within this culture, a moral transgression would thus be defined as any action that brings division to the community. Because the community includes the Spiritual World as well as the Physical, such immoral actions that disturb Spirit will cause these same forces to seek harmony, balance, and often restitution. This frequently manifests in the form of “reaping exactly what has been sown”. What is considered “right” in the Vodou world is not “a function of abstract reasoning, but is relative to what will achieve unity and equilibrium in the [family or the greater] community” (Michel, 1998). Morality for those who serve the spirits is a constant effort to maintain social cohesion, harmony, and balance. This includes the notion of having “good character” as a means for maintaining such balance.
“Those who behave like earthworms should never be surprised when people walk over them.”
-common Haitian proverb
Now what is called good character in Vodou extends to include the notion of respect for ones family, for all people, especially extreme respect for ones elders, the bearers of knowledge and wisdom, the repositories of experience. In Kreyòl, it is common to speak of san mwe (literally, “my blood”, indicating a relationship via the father) and petit van (literally, “children of the [same] belly”, indicating a relationship via the mother). However, the concept of family may be extended to include those without any apparent biological relationship, and Vodou may easily conceptualize all people, even strangers, as being related to one another given they are all children of God. Vodouwizan speak of themselves as petit Ginea or simply ti-Ginea, both of which translate as “children of Ginea”, (that is to say children of Africa) and, therefore, of one human family. In light of this, Vodou teaches the need to assess consequences and assume responsibility for individual actions. Vodouwizan say, “manje kwit pa gen mèt”. That is to say that food once cooked should be shared, and this may include perfect strangers. This statement defines another cornerstone of Vodou tradition and culture. Traits such as generosity, hospitality, benevolence, forgiveness, and compassion are highly valued.A lack of moral fortitude causing an individual to act with a lack of respect, be neglectful, abusive, lacking in courage or generosity, is considered capable of causing a disequilibria and division within ones family, community, or even society. These types of behaviors often inadvertently attract giyon (general bad luck) or maldjok (the evil eye) caused by jealousy or resentment, either of which may quickly come to negatively infect all aspects of a person’s life and even that of those around them. It may even attract persecution by the lwa or the ancestors capable of causing danger to the body, both physical and spiritual. This is particularly common given such ill behaviors directly threaten the well-being and preservation of the community which, as stated already, includes both the lwa and clan ancestors who may rightly take offense sufficient to warrant punishment. Consideration of these “truths” is the driving force by which a Vodouwizan makes moral choices about themselves or about their community or environment.
Brown, Karen McC. 1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dayan, J.1998. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkley: University of California Press & - 1997. “Vodou, or the Voice of the Gods”. In Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Edited by Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Desmangles, Leslie G. 1992. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
Michel, Claudine. 1998. “Morality in Haitian Vodou.” In The Association for Haitian American Development (AHAD) Newsletter, issue