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West African Vodun

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Vodun (meaning spirit in the Fon, Gun and Ewe languages, pronounced [vodṹ] with a nasal high-tone u; also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Vudu, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) is a religion practiced by the Aja, Ewe, and Fon peoples of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Elements of the West African religion have survived and evolved into the current forms of religions with similar names that are found in the New World among the African diaspora in the Americas, such as Surinamese Winti, Haitian Vodou; Louisiana Voodoo; Cuban Vodú; Dominican Vudú, Venezuelan Yuyu, and Brazilian Vodum (Candomblé Jejé and Tambor de Mina).

Theology and practice[edit]

A vodoun market in Lomé, Togo, 2008.

Vodun cosmology centers around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, tribe, or nation. The vodun are the center of religious life. Perceived similarities with Roman Catholic doctrines such as the intercession of saints and angels allowed Vodun to appear compatible with Catholicism, and helped produce syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou. Adherents also emphasize ancestor worship and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living, each family of spirits having its own female priesthood, sometimes hereditary when it is from mother to blood daughter. There is also an underlying philosophical framing underpinning Vodun which, according to Suzanne Preston Blier, who undertook a year of research in 1985–86 in Abomey and the nearby area, highlights the importance of remaining calm in contexts of difficulty and in life more generally. According to Blier, Vodun means, "the idea of staying close to a water source, to not rush through life, to take time to attain tranquility." Her interpretation stems from two area diviners who maintain that its origins lie in the phrase "rest to draw the water", from the Fon verbs vo 'to rest', and dun 'to draw water', the stoic suggestion of "the need for one to be calm and composed" in the face of adversity.[1]

Patterns of Vodun worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals. The divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being. She is an elder woman, and usually a mother who is gentle and forgiving. She is also seen as the god who owns all other gods and even if there is no temple made in her name, the people continue to pray to her, especially in times of distress. In one tradition, she bore seven children. Sakpata: Vodun of the Earth, Xêvioso (or Xêbioso): Vodun of Thunder, also associated with divine justice,[2] Agbe: Vodun of the Sea, Gû: Vodun of Iron and War, Agê: Vodun of Agriculture and Forests, Jo: Vodun of Air, and Lêgba: Vodun of the Unpredictable.[3]

The Creator embodies a dual cosmogonic principle of which Mawu the moon and Lisa the sun are respectively the female and male aspects, often portrayed as the twin children of the Creator.[4] In other stories, Mawu-Lisa is depicted as a single hermaphroditic person capable of impregnating herself, with two faces rather than being twins.[5] Lisa is the sun god who brings the day and the heat, and also strength and energy. Mawu, the moon goddess, provides the cool of the night, peace, fertility, and rain. To give this in a summed aspect, a proverb says "When Lisa punishes Mawu forgives."[6] In other branches, the Creator and other vodus are known by different names, such as Sakpo-Disa (Mawu), Aholu (Sakpata), and Anidoho (Da), Gorovodu.[7]

Legba is often represented as a phallus or as a man with a prominent phallus. Known as the youngest son of Mawu, he is the chief of all Vodun divinities;[8] in his diasporic portrayal, Legba is believed to be a very old man who walks on crutches.[9] Being old he is seen as wise, but when seen as a child he is one who is rebellious. It is only through contact with Legba that it becomes possible to contact the other gods, for he is the guardian at the door of the spirits.[10] Dan, who is Mawu's androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and was to remain with her and act as a go-between with her other creations. As the mediator between the spirits and the living, Dan maintains balance, order, peace and communication.

All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine. This is how medicines such as herbal remedies are understood, and explains the ubiquitous use of mundane objects in religious ritual. Vodun talismans, called "fetishes", are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold for their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Specifically, they are objects inhabited by spirits. The entities that inhabit a fetish are able to perform different tasks according to their stage of development. Fetish objects are often combined in the construction of "shrines", used to call forth specific vodun and their associated powers.[11]


The Queen Mother is the first daughter of a matriarchal lineage of a family collective. She holds the right to lead the ceremonies incumbent to the clan: marriages, baptisms and funerals. She is one of the most important members of community. She will lead the women of a village when her family collective is the ruling one. They take part in the organisation and the running of markets and are also responsible for their upkeep. This is vitally important because marketplaces are the focal points for gatherings and social centres in their communities. In the past when the men of the villages would go to war, the Queen Mothers would lead prayer ceremonies in which all the women attended every morning to ensure the safe return of their menfolk.

The high priestess is the woman chosen by the oracle to care for the convent. Priestesses, like priests, receive a calling from an oracle, which may come at any moment during their lives. They will then join their clan's convent to pursue spiritual instruction. It is also an oracle that will designate the future high priest and high priestess among the new recruits, establishing an order of succession within the convent. Only blood relatives were allowed in the family convent; strangers are forbidden. In modern days, however, some family members enter what is described as the first circle of worship. Strangers are allowed to worship only the spirits of the standard pantheon.


About 17% of the population of Benin, some 1.6 million, people follow Vodun. (This does not count other traditional religions in Benin.) In addition, many of the 41.5% of the population that refer to themselves as "Christian" practice a syncretized religion, not dissimilar from Haitian Vodou or Brazilian Candomblé; indeed, many of them are descended from freed Brazilian slaves who settled on the coast near Ouidah.[12]

In Togo, about half the population practices indigenous religions, of which Vodun is by far the largest, with some 2.5 million followers; there may be another million Vodunists among the Ewe of Ghana, as a 13% of the total Ghana population of 20 million are Ewe and 38% of Ghanaians practice traditional religion. According to census data, about 14 million people practice traditional religion in Nigeria, most of whom are Yoruba practicing Ifá, but no specific breakdown is available.[12]

European colonialism, followed by some of the totalitarian regimes in West Africa, have tried to suppress Vodun as well as other traditional religions.[13] However, because the Vodun deities are born to each clan, tribe, and nation, and their clergy are central to maintaining the moral, social and political order and ancestral foundation of its village, these efforts have not been successful. Recently there have been moves to restore the place of Vodun in national society, such as an annual International Vodun Conference that has been held in the city of Ouidah, Benin since 1991.[14]


Vodun and Christianity syncretism[edit]

The syncretism of Vodun and Christianity was created by connecting the traditional West African Vodun and Christianity in Benin.[15] Adherents are mainly found in Benin, Togo and Nigeria.[16] Syncretism in the religious domain is the merging of two or more originally distinct religious traditions.[17] Similar syncretic religions are also found in the surrounding countries,[18] where it is a connection between the Yoruba religion and Christianity,[19] the Odinala religion and Christianity, the Bori religion and Islam, or the Bwiti religion and Christianity.[20]

In Benin, in addition to the followers of syncretism, there is a large group of people who profess Vodun and Christianity without mixing.[15] This is a – common in Africa – multiple religious belonging.[18] Various syncretisms and eclecticisms are common in West Africa.[21] In addition to Christian services (mostly, but not exclusively, in Benin), believers also visit Vodun initiates, use traditional household protection fetishes and personal protective gris-gris amulets. They cultivate respect for deceased ancestors and communicate with the spirit world with the help of a Vodun priest (vodunon).[15]

The syncretism of Vodun and Christianity arose just like Vodun itself in Benin,[15] but similar syncretisms also arose overseas, when Vodun reached the Caribbean together with slaves, where its syncretism with Catholic Christianity gave rise to Caribbean Voodoo similar to Brazilian Candomble and Cuban Santería.[22][15]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Suzanne Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology and Power. University of Chicago Press. 1996 p. 39.
  2. ^ Ojo, J.O. (1999). Understanding West African Traditional Religion. S.O. Popoola Printers. p. 63. ISBN 978-978-33674-2-5. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
  3. ^ Anthony B. Pinn (2017-10-15). Varieties of African American Religious Experience: Toward a Comparative Black Theology. Fortress Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-1506403366. Archived from the original on 2022-05-16. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  4. ^ Anthony B. Pinn (2017-10-15). Varieties of African American Religious Experience: Toward a Comparative Black Theology. Fortress Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-1506403366. Archived from the original on 2022-05-16. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  5. ^ Herskovits, Melville J. and Frances S. "Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis." Northwestern University Press (1958), p 125.
  6. ^ Parrinder, Edward (2014). West African Religion; a Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo, and Kindred Peoples. Wipf & Stock.
  7. ^ Eric J. Montgomery and Christian N. Vannier. "Ethnography of a Vodu Shrine in Togo: Of Spirit, Slave, and Sea." Brill(2017), pg. 127
  8. ^ Herskovits, Melville J, and Frances S. Herskovits. Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. , 1958. Print. pg. 139-140
  9. ^ Ferère, Gérard (1978). HAITIAN VOODOO: ITS TRUE FACE. Caribbean Quarterly.
  10. ^ Owusu, Heike (2003). Voodoo Rituals: a User's Guide. Sterling.
  11. ^ Landry, Timothy (2016). "Incarnating Spirits, Composing Shrines, and Cooking Divine Power in Vodún". Material Religion. 12: 50–73. doi:10.1080/17432200.2015.1120086. S2CID 148063421.
  12. ^ a b "CIA Fact Book: Benin". Cia.gov. Archived from the original on 2021-06-18. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  13. ^ Oswald, Hans-Peter (2009). Vodoo. Books on Demans.
  14. ^ Forte, Jung Ran (2010). Percy C. Hintzen; Jean Muteba Rahier; Felipe Smith (eds.). Vodun Ancestry, Diaspora Homecoming, and the Ambiguities of Transnational Belongings in the Republic of Benin. University of Illinois Press. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-252-07753-1. Archived from the original on 2020-12-24. Retrieved 2017-09-15. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  15. ^ a b c d e Havelka, Ondřej (2021). "Syncretism of Catholic Christianity and West African Vodun from a Theological-Ethical Perspective". Studia Theologica. 23 (3): 149–174. doi:10.5507/sth.2021.033 – via Web of Science Core Collection (Arts & Humanities Citation Index), Scopus.
  16. ^ Gottlieb, Roger S. (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 264–268.
  17. ^ Mbiti, John S. (1991). An Introduction to African Religion. Portsmouth, London: Heinemann Educational Books. p. 15.
  18. ^ a b Ojo, J. O. (1999). Understanding West African Traditional Religion. Ile-Ife: S. C. Popoola Printers. pp. 59–68.
  19. ^ Peel, J. D. Y. (2016). Christianity, Islam, and Orisa-Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction. Oakland: University of California Press. pp. 172–191.
  20. ^ Havelka, Ondřej (2022). "The Syncretism of the Gabonese Bwiti Religion and Catholic Christianity from a Theological and Theological-Ethical Perspective". Acta Universitatis Carolinae Theologica. 12 (1): 143–159 – via Web of Science Core Collection (Arts & Humanities Citation Index), Scopus.
  21. ^ Riggs, Thomas (2006). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Detroit: Thomson Gale. pp. 2–13.
  22. ^ Touchstone, Blake (1972). "Voodoo in New Orleans". Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. 13 (4): 371–386. ISSN 0024-6816. JSTOR 4231284.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ajayi, J.F. and Espie, I. "Thousand Years of West African History" (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1967).
  • Akyea, O.E. "Ewe." New York: (The Rosen Group, 1988).
  • Ayivi Gam l . Togo Destination. High Commissioner for Tourism. Republic of Togo, 1982.
  • Bastide. R. African Civilizations in the New World. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971.
  • Decalo, Samuel. "Historical Dictionary of Dahomey" (Metuchen, N.J: The Scarecrow Press, 1976).
  • Deren, Maya. "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti." (London: Thames and Hudson, 1953).
  • "Demoniacal Possession in Angola, Africa". Journal of American Folk-lore. Vol VI., 1893. No. XXIII.
  • Ellis, A.B. "Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa" (Chicago: Benin Press, 1965).
  • Fontenot, Wonda. L. "Secret Doctors: Enthnomedicine of African Americans" (Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1994).
  • Hazoum ‚ P. "Doguicimi. The First Dahomean Novel" (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1990).
  • Herskovits, M.J. and Hersovits, F.S. Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University,
  • Hindrew, Vivian M.Ed., Mami Wata: African's Ancient God/dess Unveiled. Reclaiming the Ancient Vodoun heritage of the Diaspora. Martinez, GA: MWHS.
  • Hindrew, Vivian M.Ed., Vodoun: Why African-Americans Fear Their Cosmogentic Paths to God. Martinez, GA. MWHS:
  • Herskovits, M.J. and Hersovits, F.S. "An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief" (Wisconsin: The American Anthropological Association, 1933).
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. "Tell My Horse: Voodoo And Life In Haiti And Jamaica." Harper Perennial reprint edition, 1990.
  • Hyatt M. H. "Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork" (Illinois: Alama Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1973), Vols. I-V.
  • Journal of African History. 36. (1995) pp. 391–417.Concerning Negro Sorcery in the United States;
  • Language Guide (Ewe version). Accra: Bureau of Ghana Languages,
  • Maupoil, Bernard. "La Geomancie L'ancienne des Esclaves" (Paris: L'université de Paris, 1943).
  • Metraux, Alfred. "Voodoo In Haiti." (Pantheon reprint edition, 1989)
  • Newbell, Pucket. N. "Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro". S.C.: Chapel Hill, 1922.
  • Newell, William, W. "Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti and Louisiana," Journal of American Folk-lore, 41–47, 1888. p. 41-47.
  • Barreiro, Daniel, Garcia, Diego. "Nuit: una vision de la continuidad ancestral (spanish edition)". Montevideo, Uruguay, 2014
  • Pliya, J. "Histoire Dahomey Afrique Occidental" (Moulineaux: France, 1970).
  • Slave Society on the Southern Plantation. The Journal of Negro History. Vol. VII-January, 1922-No.1.

External links[edit]