General Information

Voodoo is a religious system with followers predominantly in Haiti, the West Indies. Developed by slaves brought to Haiti by the French between the 17th and 19th centuries, it combines features of African and native West Indian religion along with some of the Roman Catholic liturgy and sacraments. The voodoo deities, called loa, are closely related to African gods and may be spirits of natural phenomena - such as fire, water, or wind - or of the dead, including eminent ancestors. A feature of the cult is that at special ceremonies the loa have the power to make their presence known. They temporarily displace the astral body of a living person and occupy his or her physical body. The individual thus possessed is said to be mounted by the loa and behaves and acts as the loa directs, usually in a manner characteristic of the loa itself. Priests called houngans preside over these ceremonies.

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Two main groups constitute the loa: the rada, often mild and helping, and the petro, dangerous and often deadly. Graveyards, coffins, shrouds, bones, and skulls figure prominently in the symbolism of the petro cult. The bocor, or priest, is especially dreaded for his supposed ability to create the zombie, a newly dead body that he reanimates by causing it to be possessed by an elemental spirit under his control.

Benjamin Walker

H Courlander and R Bastein, Religion and Politics in Haiti (1966); W Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988); M Deren, Divine Horsemen (1953); J Haskins, Witchcraft, Mysticism and Magic in the Black World (1974); J Kerboull, Voodoo and Magic Practices (1978); A Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti (1972).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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