Documentary-Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren
About the Film:
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) is a black-and-whited ocumentary film about dance and possession in Haitian vodou that was shot by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren between 1947 and 1954.
In 1981, twenty years after Deren’s death, the film was completed by Deren’s third husband Teiji Ito (1935-1982) and his wife Cherel Winett Ito (1947-1999). Most of the film consists of images of dancing and bodies in motion during rituals in Rada and Petro services.
Deren had studied dance as well as photography and filmmaking. She originally went to Haiti with the funding from a Guggenheim fellowship and the stated intention of filming the dancing that forms a crucial part of thevodou ceremony. In 1953, Deren’s book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti, on the subject of vodou, was published by Vanguard Press.
The film that resulted, however, reflected Deren’s increasing personal engagement with vodou and its practitioners (Wilcken, 1986). While this ultimately resulted in Deren disregarding the guidelines of the fellowship, Deren was able to record scenes that probably would have been inaccessible to other filmmakers.
Deren’s original notes, film footage, and wire recordings are in the Maya Deren Collection at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center and at Anthology Film Archives.
History of Voodoo:
Vodou (,French: , also written as Voodoo(); Vodun , or Vodoun (), etc.) is a syncretic religionpracticed chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Practitioners are called “vodouists” (French: vodouisants) or “servants of the spirits” (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).
Vodou ( /ˈvoʊduː/,French: [vodu], also written as Voodoo(/ˈvuːduː/); Vodun , or Vodoun (/ˈvoʊduːn/), etc.) is a syncretic religionpracticed chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Practitioners are called “vodouists” (French: vodouisants[voduisɑ̃]) or “servants of the spirits” (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).
Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable creator god, Bondyè. As Bondyè does not intercede in human affairs, vodouists direct their worship toward spirits subservient to Bondyè, called loa. Every loa is responsible for a particular aspect of life, with the dynamic and changing personalities of each loa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of life over which they preside. In order to navigate daily life, vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the loa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and spirit possession.
Vodou originated in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue in the 18th century, when African religious practice was actively suppressed, and enslaved Africans were forced to convert to Christianity. Religious practices of contemporary Vodou are descended from, and closely related to, West African Vodun as practiced by the Fon and Ewe. Vodou also incorporates elements and symbolism from other African peoples including the Yorùbá and Bakongo; as well as Taíno religious beliefs, and European spirituality includingRoman Catholic Christianity, European mysticism, Freemasonry, and other influences.
Names and Etymology
Vodou is a Haitian Creole word that formerly referred to only to a small subset of Haitian rituals. It is descended from an Ayizo word referring to “mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodunenergies.”[ In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits” (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a “service to the loa” (sèvis loa) or an “African service” (sèvis gineh). These terms can also be used to refer to the religion as a whole.
Outside of Haiti, the term vodou refers to the entirety of traditional Haitian religious practice. Originally written as vodun, it is first recorded in Doctrina Christiana, a 1658 document written by the King of Allada’s ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the following centuries, vodou was eventually taken up by non-Haitians as a generic descriptive term for traditional Haitian religion. There are many used orthographies for this word. Today, the spelling vodou is the most commonly accepted orthography in English. Other potential spellings include vodou, vodoun, vaudoux, and voodoo, with vau- or vou- prefix variants reflecting French orthography, and a final -n reflecting the nasal vowel in West African or older, non-urbanized, Haitian Creole pronunciations.
The spelling voodoo, once very common, is now generally avoided by Haitian practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana voodoo, a related but distinct set of religious practices, as well as to separate Haitian vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term “voodoo” has acquired in popular culture.
Vodou paraphernalia, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Vodouisants believe in a supreme being called Bondye, but also worship many lesser spirits, as the loa. This belief is held in several West African religions, such as that of theYoruba, Odinani, and Vodun. When it came in contact with Roman Catholicism, the supreme being was associated with the Judeo-Christian God, the loa becoming the saints.
Bondye is the supreme god in Haitian Vodou. The word is derived from the French bon Dieu (good God). Vodouisants regard Bondye as the creator of everything. Bondye is distant from its creation, being a pandeist deity. It is aloof from everyday affairs, and Vodouisants do not believe they can contact it for help.
Because Bondye is unreachable, Vodouisants aim their prayers to lesser entities, the spirits known as loa, or mistè. The most notable loa include Papa Legba (guardian of the crossroads), Erzulie Freda (the spirit of love), Simbi (the spirit of rain and magicians), Kouzin Zaka (the spirit of agriculture), and The Marasa, divine twins considered to be the first children of Bondye.
These loa can be divided into 21 nations, which include the Petro, Rada, Congo and Nago. The Petro and the Rada contrast most with one another, because the Petro are hot or aggressive and restless, whereas the Rada are cool or calm and peaceful.
The loa also fall into family groups, who share a surname, such as Ogou, Ezili, Azaka or Ghede. For instance, “Ezili” is a family, Ezili Danto and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. Each family is associated with a specific aspect, for instance the Ogou family are soldiers, the Ezili govern the feminine spheres of life, the Azaka govern agriculture, the Ghede govern the sphere of death and fertility. Each of the loa is associated with a particular Roman Catholic saint.
Those in the Haitian Vodou practices that serve the loa are the Bokor. The Bokor are the Vodou priest/priestesses who can be hired to perform various sorcery. The Bokor practice both light and dark forms of magic. The Dark magic that they practice mainly revolves around the creation of zombies through the use of a mixture of poisons. These poisons are mainly derived from puffer fish and other poisonous substances.
Vodou’s moral code focuses on the vices of dishonor and greed. There is also a notion of relative propriety—and what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone withOgou Feray as their head. For example, one spirit is very cool and the other is very hot. Coolness overall is valued, and so is the ability and inclination to protect oneself and one’s own if necessary. Love and support within the family of the Vodou society seem to be the most important considerations. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One’s blessings come through the community, and one should be willing to give back. There are no “solitaries” in Voodou—only people separated geographically from their elders and house. A person without a relationship of some kind with elders does not practice Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians.
There is a diversity of practice in Vodou across the country of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. For instance in the north of Haiti the lave tèt (“head washing”) or kanzwe may be the only initiation, as it is in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, whereas in Port-au-Prince and the south they practice the kanzo rites with three grades of initiation – kanzo senp, si pwen, and asogwe – and the latter is the most familiar mode of practice outside of Haiti. Some lineages combine both, as Mambo Katherine Dunham reports from her personal experience in her book Island Possessed.
While the overall tendency in Vodou is conservative in accord with its African roots, there is no singular, definitive form, only what is right in a particular house or lineage. Small details of service and the spirits served vary from house to house, and information in books or on the internet therefore may seem contradictory. There is no central authority or “pope” in Haitian Vodou, since “every mambo and houngan is the head of their own house”, as a popular saying in Haiti goes. Another consideration in terms of Haitian diversity are the many sects besides the Sèvi Gine in Haiti such as the Makaya, Rara, and other secret societies, each of which has its own distinct pantheon of spirits.
Liturgy and practice
A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour. After a day or two of preparation setting up altars at an Hounfour, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African “langaj” that goes through all the European and African saints and loa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the “Priyè Gine” or the African Prayer. After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting Hounto, the spirit of the drums, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legbafamily through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petwo part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family.
As the songs are sung, participants believe that spirits come to visit the ceremony, by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. When a ceremony is made, only the family of those possessed is benefited. At this time it is believed that devious mambo or houngan can take away the luck of the worshippers through particular actions. For instance, if a priest asks for a drink of champagne, a wise participant refuses. Sometimes these ceremonies may include dispute among the singers as to how a hymn is to be sung. In Haiti, these Vodou ceremonies, depending on the Priest or Priestess, may be more organized. But in the United States, many vodouists and clergy take it as a sort of non-serious party or “folly”.
In a serious rite, each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and gives readings, advice, and cures to those who ask for help. Many hours later, as morning dawns, the last song is sung, the guests leave, and the exhausted hounsis, houngans, and mambos can go to sleep.
On the individual’s household level, a Vodouisant or “sèvitè”/”serviteur” may have one or more tables set out for their ancestors and the spirit or spirits that they serve with pictures or statues of the spirits, perfumes, foods, and other things favored by their spirits. The most basic set up is just a white candle and a clear glass of water and perhaps flowers. On a particular spirit’s day, one lights a candle and says an Our Father and Hail Mary, salutes Papa Legba and asks him to open the gate, and then one salutes and speaks to the particular spirit as an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be “in the blood”.
Houngans (Male Voodoo Priest) or Mambos (Female Vodou Priest) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. His or her tendency is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, however they sometimes use their supernatural power to hurt or kill people. They also conduct ceremonies that usually take place “Amba Peristil” (under a Vodou Temple). However, non-Houngan or non-Mambo as Vodouisants are not initiated, and are referred to as being “bossale”; it is not a requirement to be an initiate to serve one’s spirits. There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Sometimes they are “called” to serve in a process called “being reclaimed”, which they may resist at first. Below the houngans and mambos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries.
A “bokor” is a sorcerer or magician who casts spells upon request. They are not necessarily priests, and may be practitioners of “darker” things and often not even accepted by the mambo or the houngan. Or, a “Bokor” would be the Haitian term for a vodou priest or other, working both the light and dark arts of magic.
Before 1685: From Africa to the Caribbean
The cultural area of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba peoples share common metaphysical conceptions around a dual cosmological divine principle Nana Buluku, the God-Creator, and the voduns(s) or God-Actor(s), daughters and sons of the Creator’s twin children Mawu(goddess of the moon) and Lisa (god of the sun). The God-Creator is the cosmogonical principle and does not trifle with the mundane; the voduns(s) are the God-Actor(s) who actually govern earthly issues. The pantheon of vodoun is quite large and complex.
West African Vodun has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest and priestess, which are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are gods and goddesses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti and in many parts of Togo; Gu (or Ogoun), ruling iron and smithcraft;Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.
A significant portion of Haitian Vodou often overlooked by scholars until recently is the input from the Kongo. The entire northern area of Haiti is heavily influenced by Kongo practices. In northern Haiti, it is often called theKongo Rite or Lemba, from the Lemba rituals of the Loango area and Mayombe. In the south, Kongo influence is called Petwo (Petro). Many loa (a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin, such as Basimbi, Lemba, etc.
In addition, the Vodun religion (distinct from Haitian Vodou) already existed in the United States previously to Haitian immigration, having been brought by enslaved West Africans, specifically from the Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago groups. Some of the more enduring forms survive in the Gullah Islands.
European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa, suppressed Vodun as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodun deities are born to each African clan-group, and its clergy is central to maintaining the moral, social, and political order and ancestral foundation of its villagers, it proved to be impossible to eradicate the religion.
1685-1791: Vodou in Colonial Saint-Domingue
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. The survival of the belief systems in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time and have even taken on some Catholic forms of worship. Two important factors, however, characterize the uniqueness of Haitian Vodou as compared to African Vodun; the transplanted Africans of Haiti, similar to those of Cuba and Brazil, were obliged to disguise their loa or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, an element of a process called syncretism.
Two keys provisions of the Code Noir by King Louis XIV of France in 1685 severely limited the ability of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue to practice African religions. First, the Code Noir explicitly forbade the open practice of all African religions. Second, it forced all slaveholders to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue. As a result, over the course of the 18th century, African religious practice in Saint-Domingue adapted to each of these provisions. First, African religious practice largely went underground, outside of the control of colonial authorities. Second, the diverse pantheon of African spirits that had already been incorporated into religious practice in Saint-Domingue was overlayed with images, practices, and rituals borrowed from Catholicism. Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a French observer writing in 1797, noted this religious syncretism, commenting that the Catholic-style altars and votive candles used by Africans in Haiti were meant to conceal the Africanness of the religion.
Vodou, as it is known in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, is the result of the pressures of many different cultures and ethnicities of people who were uprooted from Africa and imported to Haiti in the African slave trade. Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and from this fragmentation became culturally unified. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Amerindian nations, Vodou has incorporated pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy to replace lost prayers or elements. Images of Catholic saints are used to represent various spirits or “mistè” (“mysteries”, actually the preferred term in Haiti), and many saints themselves are honored in Vodou in their own right. This syncretism allows Vodou to encompass the African, the Indian, and the European ancestors in a whole and complete way. It is truly a Kreyòl religion
1791-1804: The Haitian Revolution
The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman or Bois Caïmanceremony of August 1791 that began the Haitian Revolution, in which the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering, and all those present pledged themselves to the fight for freedom. This ceremony ultimately resulted in the liberation of the Haitian people from French colonial rule in 1804, and the establishment of the first black people’s republic in the history of the world and the second independent nation in the Americas.
Vodou in 19th Century Haiti
20th Century to the Present
Today, Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians but by Americans and people of many other nations who have been exposed to Haitian culture. Haitian creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, eastern Cuba, some of the outer islands of the Bahamas, the United States, and anywhere that Haitians have emigrated to. There has been a re-emergence of the Vodun traditions in the United States, maintaining the same ritual and cosmological elements as in West Africa. These and other African-diasporic religions, such as Lukumi or Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) in Cuba, and Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, have evolved among descendants of transplanted Africans in the Americas.
Many Haitians involved in the practice of Vodou have been initiated as Houngans or Mambos. In Haiti, a houngan or mambo is considered a person of possible high power and status who acquire much money; it now is a growing occupation in Haiti, attracting many an impoverished citizen to its practice, not only to gain power but to gain money as well. Some vodouists with a hunger to live a life of wealth and power became practitioners so they could exploit foreigners and Haitians who are uneducated about Vodou, bringing them into a web of deceptions to collect large incomes in exchange for poor quality work.
In January 2010, after the Haiti earthquake there was an outburst of solidarity prayers in Benin with the victims. Traditional ceremonies were organized to appease the spirits and seek the blessing of ancestors for the Haitians. Also a “purification ceremony” was planned for Haiti. In a 2010 news story, CNN reported, “At least 45 people, most of them Vodou priests, have been lynched in Haiti since the beginning of the cholera epidemic by angry mobs blaming them for the spread of the disease, officials said.
Demographics and Geographic Distribution
Because of the religious syncretism (that is, the purposeful combination of contradictory and unrelated beliefs) between Catholicism and Vodou, it is difficult to estimate the number of Vodouists in Haiti. The CIA currently estimates that approximately 50% of Haiti’s population practices Vodou, with nearly all Vodouists participating in one of Haiti’s Christian denominations.
Gallery of Haitian Vodou objects
Statue of a djab, a quick-working wild spirit.
Banner reading “Trop Pou Te” in the Haitian Creole language
Mirrors represent doorways to the world of the dead.
Myths and misconceptions
Vodou is often associated with the lore of Satanism, zombies and “voodoo dolls”. Zombie creation has been referenced within rural Haitian culture, but is not a part of the Vodou religion. Such manifestations fall under the auspices of the bokor or sorcerer rather than the priest of the Loa.
The practice of sticking pins in voodoo dolls has history in folk magic. “Voodoo dolls” are often associated withNew Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo (folk magic) as well the magical devices of the poppet and the nkisi orbocio of West and Central Africa.
The dark side of Vodou is often a dramatic device of modern horror and action-adventure movies such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and Live and Let Die (part of the Ian Fleming James Bond series).
In April 1997, thirteen scholars gathered at the University of California Santa Barbara for a colloquium on Haitian Vodou. From that meeting the Congress of Santa Barbara was created, also known as KOSANBA.
In the aftermath of the Duvalier dictatorship, a number of individuals, including many houngan, sought to organize means of defense for Haitian Vodou from defamation by evangelical Christian missionaries and congregations. One of the first leading houngan to formally organize other houngan in solidarity was Wesner Morency (1959–2007), who established the Vodou Church of Haiti in 1998 (registered in 2001 by the Ministry of Justice) and the Commission Nationale pour la Structuration de Vodou (CONAVO). Another individual who has pursued the organization of houngan is Max Beauvoir, who established and heads the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou.
However, the ability to organize and speak on behalf of most, if not all Vodouisants is hampered by the spirituality’s historically decentralized nature.