Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Haiti: Voodoo and the Western Imagination

Drive the pin into the doll. Wait for the witch, the victim and the scream – or maybe turn the football on, instead. It’s film fodder, and as an audience, we’ve learned to associate Voodoo with all sorts of awful things. Zombies, puppets, locks of hair – a pact with the devil, I’ve seen that, too – they might make for a late-night flick, but haven’t got much basis in belief. Whatever we see on TV, the reality of Voodoo is altogether more interesting.

While the stereotypes start on screen, Voodoo (or, correctly, Vodou) begins in West Africa. The Yoruba and Kongo people, abducted as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, brought its core beliefs to Haiti in the eighteenth century. Though many were coerced into Catholicism, some retained their belief in an all-powerful, non-interventionist creator. Known as Olorun, this creator soon gained a new name, Bondye – from the French ‘Bon Dieu’. His servants, the Ioa, govern daily life, each with their own personality. Relationships are established between follower and spirit through music, dance, and offerings. For all the efforts of the French, these ties began to supersede those of the slave and master, and a revolutionary religion was established.

As Saint-Domingue became the most valuable colony in Caribbean, the Spanish looked to destabilise Robespierre’s France. Fomenting revolt amongst African slaves, who made up more than 90% of the island’s population, Vodou quickly took on prominence. Second only to racism in uniting revolutionaries, French forces became convinced the success of former slaves was supernatural – rather than, say, strategic. Superstition spread as fast as Yellow Fever, both securing victory for the revolution, and cementing the myth of the ‘Voodoo curse’. In 1804, Haiti was declared a republic, and to this day, ‘hoodoo’ remains slang for ‘black magic’ in the Cajun south.

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