Vodou and Catholicism Part Two

In my previous article I took a look at the historical context of Catholicism in Haiti. This is, of course, necessary in understanding its presence and influence in the contemporary practice of Vodou. That being said, Vodou is, of course, vast and varied and it is difficult to make any sort of sweeping statement that possesses even a modicum of universality. So with that caveat, we’ll peer at some of the Catholic fingerprints we find in Vodou–especially asson / asogwe Vodou–today, keeping in mind the important advice from Constentino when discussing it–that we always ask, “who’s Vodou?”

However, firstly, I’m going to note that it’s a Western conceit that some sort of neat category called “religion” exists. We think of religion as a box into which we can place certain things, divorced and separated from the rest of life, and maintain this fiction steadfastly; this is an exercise in futility. Religion wraps itself throughout a culture, touching art; music; literature; spirituality; legal systems; human rights; food; language; traditions and holidays; clothing; and just about anything else one can imagine. Even a first year student in religious studies, anthropology, or sociology will begin to see that trying to artificially wall off something called “religion” from the rest of a culture is like trying to have a Christmas tree separate from its wood. A pile of pine needles does not a tree make. In fact, trying to create a definition of “religion” that actually reflects the diversity of human beliefs and practices has proven to be a sort of academic Gordian knot. Anyway, I’m making a point–Catholicism is deeply entwined in Haitian culture, and trying to separate it out is like trying to remove the eggs from a freshly baked cake. Ya can’t.

Secondly, the justification for the presence of Catholic elements varies depending on who you talk to. Catholic Vodouisants will welcome them as integral to the tradition–in fact, anthropologist Alfred Metraux was once told that one must be Catholic to practice Vodou (obviously this isn’t so, but was important enough to a houngan to make the statement–see Voodoo in Haiti, first published in 1958). Others may see such elements as vestigial remnants of a time when Vodou needed to be masked from colonial powers; as spoils of war taken from those powers and used by right; or as unwelcome altogether and in need of excision. However, despite the justification to which one clings, the cake has eggs.

This being said, we live in a modern world in which conversations around Church scandals, colonialism, and the movement to decolonize are at the forefront of contemporary discourse and it behooves us to acknowledge the modern lens through which we view our topic. Modern positions that claim Catholic elements are masks, and nothing more, are overly simplistic, and demonstrate the proverbial axes we tend to grind with the Church rather than the historical and cultural Haitian reality. In my previous article I quoted George Breathett, who wrote, “Yet, it is noteworthy, and an indication of the tremendous impact that the missionaries made…that the flame of Catholicism remained alive for more than half a century when Haiti was cut off from Rome.” I also noted that lay Catholic confraternities and institutions were founded by Haitian during this period. Simply put, if Catholic elements were merely a veneer they’d have vanished after the Revolution when no one needed to hide anything from colonial powers. In assuming these things are only masks and nothing more we do a disservice both to historical record and to centuries of Haitian Vodouisants who were also card-carrying, faithful Catholics, finding no conflict between the two and enjoying a richer and deeper worldview and practice as a result of their mingled path. We also ignore dynamic practitioners who may not have been faithful Church-goers, but may have had a fondness for the aspects of Catholicism they found useful.

Metraux wasn’t the only one to find a deep connection to Catholicism among Haitian Vodouisants–when they gathered information on the lwa, researchers Ackermann, Gautier, and Momplaisir were told of Dambala, “He’s a white lwa converted to Catholicism…Danbala is considered Catholic” (…c’est aussi un lwa blanc converti au catholicisme…Danbala est consideré comme catholique). That’s a strange view, but it points to the way some have merged the belief structures of the two traditions, navigating the space between them. Indeed, Dambala is almost a litmus test for how Catholic a house or sosyete is–in heavily Catholicized houses he may be called the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God, or the personification of God’s creative force. In houses with much less overt Catholic influence he may be spoken of as the actual Creator, or at least the first thing created through which all else was made (hearkening back to Arius and his whole thing in 325 AD).

However, Catholic influence is not limited to merely cosmetic things, such as saint images hiding symbols of the lwa, as would be expected with mere masking. Our fets begin with Catholic prayers and songs in French, or Kreyolized French, followed by a lengthy litany of saints before we get to the lwa themselves. The justifications listed above have all been applied to why this is, but such things could be discarded today safely, were it not for the weight of tradition or continued Catholic faith. Many Vodouisants, including myself, employ novenas as a service to the lwa, or as part of travay, often using one associated with the saintly mask of the lwa (a Saint Sebastian prayer for Gran Bwa, for example). Rosaries are not uncommon offerings and I have seen (and made) wanga using milagros. Holy water collected from churches are added to many baths and other works.

To muddy the waters still further, some lwa are said to be the actual saint, who has sat down with the Lwa (chita avek lwa yo)–two important examples being Saint Philomena / Filomez and Saint James the Greater / Sen Jak. In these cases there is certainly no fundamental division between saint and lwa; there is a saying, “the saint is the saint and the lwa is the lwa” that is sometimes used to point to such a clear distinction, but the actual meaning of the phrase points to how we serve–we may approach Filomez through Vodou as a lwa, or Catholic practice as Saint Philomena.

In many (but not all) houses, part of the kanzo initiation cycle requires performing a pilgrimage to seven churches. This is not an innovation but a centuries old Catholic Lenten tradition called Seven Churches Visitation, dating back to at least 1553 and centered on Maundy Thursday. A further example of the distinct and overt blending of the two traditions–the baptem portion of a kanzo is rooted in both African and Catholic streams, complete with Afro-Caribbean leaf-infused waters / head washing and Catholic-style godparents (some houses have a pret savanne read Catholic prayers at this time).

While saint images are generally considered simple masks of the Lwa, the influence of the cult of saints is broader. Dambala is frequently masked by Patrick, yes. Yet he is celebrated and feted on Saint Patrick’s Day, as is Loko on Saint Joseph’s Day, Ogou Badagris on Saint George’s Day, and so on. With no contemporary need for masking, why keep to these days at all? While there isn’t a 1:1 equivalence here, with every lwa being feted on the corresponding saint’s feast day, there are enough occurrences to eliminate coincidence as a factor. Other associations can bleed over as well–royal blue and Petwo red as common colours given to Dantor make sense, as the Mother of Haiti should have the flag’s colours, but the gold and green some give her make less sense until one considers one of the images associated with her esko–Santa Barbara Africana. One could assume that there just happened to be a perfect saint image for each lwa, right down to colours and iconography, but that strikes me as unlikely and doubtful. Rather there is a stronger likelihood that Catholic iconography, as well as African, Taino and evolving contemporary beliefs, combined and influenced the correspondences we employ with the lwa today.

In many houses, Sunday is not a day associated or dedicated to any specific lwa or nation of lwa, but is devoted to God / Bondye. The obvious origin of this particular day is in Catholic practice, but in those houses who do celebrate a lwa on Sunday, it’s Dambala–that litmus test lwa so close to God. “Bon Danbala” is not an unusual greeting on Sundays.

These examples, and more that could be given, certainly speak in brief to the prominent influence of Catholic tradition and iconography in the development of Haitian Vodou, and its continuing presence today. However, this does not indicate that everything retains its original Catholic meaning! Early scholarship tended to view syncretism as very mechanistic–cultural lego blocks from different sets that were slapped together on the level of common culture–but this has absolutely been challenged (so STFU Herskovitz). The creativity and agency of individuals and smaller groups has been accorded a deeper consideration, and this provides us with a richer, more nuanced, and more accurate understanding of how the different streams that contributed to the river of Haitian Vodou combined. Vodou is nothing if not practical, and is willing to absorb what is needed or valuable while ignoring what isn’t, and this happens on the level of the individual and the small social unit, not just on the regional or national level. Yay, dynamism!

So, then, we find a wealth of complexity. Many cultural practices and images found in Vodou are absolutely rooted in Catholicism; in some cases they have been reinterpreted through a non-Catholic lens, such as a crucifix representing the crossroads, and in others they are masks, such as an image of Saint Patrick or Moses representing Dambala. In still others they are not masks at all but direct absorptions, such as adapting the seven churches visitation to kanzo, and yet others are intentionally blended, such as deriving correspondences from a saint’s image, or giving Sunday to God, or the baptem portion of kanzo. Catholic elements often function in a changed role that may or may not be recognizable to foreign Catholics, but are not divided or even divisible completely from their origins. However, the interpretation of these elements, their understanding, is individualized in many cases, and what is true in one person’s Vodou is not inherently so in another’s. The houngan who told Metraux that one needed to be Catholic to serve the lwa certainly believed it was so, and many others would disagree, but when elders disagree we need to remember that different does not automatically mean wrong.

To return to the metaphor, the eggs are not only baked into the cake, they are now part of it, and regardless of what they were before the batter was mixed, they’re cake now and not available for scrambling or frying or hurling at people who bitch about my writing.

In the end, these Catholic elements are present and, even were they ruthlessly sought out and purged tomorrow, their legacy would still remain, because Vodou expresses Haitian culture, and culture is built on what went before. The amazing dynamism of Haitian culture as a whole, and Vodou as a specific expression of it, ensures that it will continue to evolve, keeping itself relevant in a world that shifts and changes, and the Catholic threads that are part of this will remain so. We do no service to those who went before us in this tradition by pretending otherwise, and whether we are Catholic or not, Vodou has inherited a good deal from the Church. Rather than excise Catholic songs or prayers or icons, we would be better served by treating these elements as part of a spiritual inheritance remade in a form that flows and roils with the lwa and their serviteurs.

Further Reading:

Ackermann, H., Gautier, M., & Momplaisir, M-A. (2011) Les esprits du vodou haitien. EducaVision Inc

Breathett, George (1962) Catholic missionary activity and the negro slave in haiti, in Phylon (1960-), Vol. 23, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1962), pp. 278-285, Clark Atlanta University Press

Lindenfeld, D. F., & Richardson, M. (2012). Beyond conversion and syncretism: indigenous encounters with Missionary Christianity, 1800-2000. Berghahn Books.

Metraux, Alfred (1989). Voodoo in haiti. Pantheon Publishing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s