Called Sèvis Gine or "African Service" in Haiti, a Creolized form of Vodou is the primary culture and religion of the more than 8 million people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Haitian Vodou also has strong elements from the Ibo and Kongo peoples of Central Africa and the Yoruba of Nigeria, though many different peoples or "nations" of Africa have representation in the liturgy of the Sèvis Gine, as do the Taíno Indians, the original peoples of the island now known as Hispaniola
Haitian Creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti (where it is native), the Dominican Republic, parts of Cuba, the United States, and other places that Haitian immigrants dispersed to over the years. It is similar to other African-diasporic religions such as Lukumi or Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) in Cuba, Candomble and Umbanda in Brazil, all religions that evolved among descendants of transplanted Africans in the Americas.
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from the Guinea Coast of West Africa, and their descendants are the primary practitioners of Vodou (those Africans brought to the southern US were primarily from the Kongo kingdom). The survival of the belief system in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time. One of the largest differences however between African and Haitian Vodou is that the transplanted Africans of Haiti were obliged to disguise their lwa or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, a process called syncretism.
Most experts speculate that this was done in an attempt to hide their "pagan" religion from their masters who had forbidden them to practice it. To say that Haitian Vodou is simply a mix of West African religions with a veneer of Roman Catholicism would not be entirely correct. This would be ignoring numerous influences from the native Taíno Indians, as well as the evolutionary process that Vodou has undergone shaped by the volatile ferment of Haitian history. It would also be ignoring the large influence of European paganism in Roman Catholicism and its pantheon of saints itself.
Vodou as we know it in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora today is the result of the pressures of many different cultures and ethnicities of people being uprooted from Africa and imported to Hispanola during the African slave trade. Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and out of this fragmentation became culturally unified. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Indian nations, pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy have been incorporated to replace lost prayers or elements; in addition 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.
The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman or Bois Caïman ceremony 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 their French masters in 1804, and the establishment of the first black people's republic in the history of the world.
Haitian Vodou grew in the United States to a significant degree beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing the Duvalier regime, taking root in Miami, New York City, Chicago, and other major cities.
Haitian Vodouisants believe, in accordance with widespread African tradition, that there is one God who is the creator of all, referred to as "Bondyè" (from the French "Bon Dieu" or "Good God", distinguished from the god of the whites in a dramatic speech by the houngan Boukman at Bwa Kayiman, but is often considered the same God the Roman Catholic Church talks about). Bondyè is distant from his/her/its creation though, and so it is the spirits or the "mysteries", "saints", or "angels" that the Vodouisant turns to for help, as well as to the ancestors. The Vodouisant worships God, and serves the spirits, who are treated with honor and respect as elder members of a household might be. There are said to be twenty-one nations or "nanchons" of spirits, also sometimes called "lwa-yo". Some of the more important nations of lwa are the Rada, the Nago, and the Kongo. The spirits also come in "families" that all share a surname, like Ogou, or Ezili, or Azaka or Ghede. For instance, "Ezili" is a family, Ezili Dantor and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. 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. In Dominican Vodou, there is also an Agua Dulce or "Sweet Waters" family, which encompasses all Amerindian spirits. There are literally hundreds of lwa. Well known individual lwa include Danbala Wedo, Papa Legba Atibon, and Agwe Tawoyo.
In Haitian Vodou, spirits are divided according to their nature in roughly two categories, whether they are hot or cool. Cool spirits fall under the Rada category, and hot spirits fall under the Petwo category. Rada spirits are familial and mostly come from Africa, Petwo spirits are mostly native to Haiti and are more demanding and require more attention to detail than the Rada, but both can be dangerous if angry or upset. Neither is "good" or "evil" in relation to the other.
Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to "own their head", however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the "met tet", may or may not be the most active spirit in a person's life in Haitian belief.
In serving the spirits, the Vodouisant seeks to achieve harmony with their own individual nature and the world around them, manifested as personal power and resourcefulness in dealing with life. Part of this harmony is membership in and maintaining relationships within the context of family and community. A Vodou house or society is organized on the metaphor of an extended family, and initiates are the "children" of their initiators, with the sense of hierarchy and mutual obligation that implies.
Most Vodouisants are not initiated, referred to as being "bosal"; it is not a requirement to be an initiate in order 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. Priests are referred to as "Houngans" and priestesses as "Manbos". Below the houngans and manbos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries. One doesn't serve just any lwa but only the ones they "have" according to one's destiny or nature. Which spirits a person "has" may be revealed at a ceremony, in a reading, or in dreams. However all Vodouisants also serve the spirits of their own blood ancestors, and this important aspect of Vodou practice is often glossed over or minimized in importance by commentators who do not understand the significance of it. The ancestor cult is in fact the basis of Vodou religion, and many lwa like Agasou (formerly a king of Dahomey) for example are in fact ancestors who are said to have been raised up to divinity.
After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African "langaj" that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa 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 the spirit of the drums named Hounto, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family 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 spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in the wee hours of the morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos 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 like an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be "in the blood".
The cultural values that Vodou embraces center around ideas of honor and respect - to God, to the spirits, to the family andd sosyete, and to oneself. There is a plural idea of proper and improper, in the sense that what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone with Ogou Feray as their head, for example.. one spirit is very cool and the other one 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 sosyete seems to be the most important consideration. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One's blessings come through the community and there is the idea that one should be willing to give back to it in turn. Since Vodou has such a community orientation, there are no "solitaries" in Vodou, only people separated geographically from their elders and house. In contrast to European-based Neopagan tradition, it is not a "do it yourself" religion - a person without a relationship of some kind with elders will not be practicing Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians.
The Haitian Vodou religion is an ecstatic rather than a fertility based tradition and does not discriminate against gay men and lesbian women or other queer people in any way. In fact there are hounfos or temples in Haiti whose clergy are entirely gay males or lesbians, etc. Unlike European-based Neopagan sects like Wicca, whose practitioners are often intensely curious about traditional religions like Haitian Vodou and which has a highly gender-based and heterosexually metaphoric ritual core, in Haitian Vodou the sexual orientation or gender identity and expression of a practitioner is of no concern in a ritual setting. It is seen as just the way God made a person. The spirits help each person to simply be the person that they are.
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 sèvis 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 Manbo Katherine Dunham reports from her personal experience in her book Island Possessed.
While the overall tendency in Vodou is very 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 will 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 manbo 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.
A common saying is that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic and 100% Vodou. In the southern United States, it has also influenced the system of folk magic and folk religion known as hoodoo which derives primarily from Congo and Angolan magical practices from Central Africa. The best survivals of possibly Haitian-influenced religion in the southern US, however, are most likely to be found within the African-American Spiritual Churches of New Orleans, a Christian sect founded by Mother Leafy Anderson in the early 20th century which incorporates Catholic iconography, ecstatic worship derived from Pentacostal forms, and spiritualism. A hallmark of the New Orleans Spiritual Churches is the honoring of the Native American spirit named Black Hawk.
Public relations-wise, Vodou has come to be associated in the popular mind with such phenomena as "zombies" and "voodoo dolls". While there is ethnobotanical evidence relating to "zombie" creation, it is a minor phenomenon within rural Haitian culture and not a part of the Vodou religion as such. Such things fall under the auspices of the "bokor" or sorcerer rather than the priest of the Lwa Gine.
The practice of sticking pins in "voodoo dolls" has been used as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of what has come to be called "New Orleans Voodoo", which is a local variant of hoodoo. This practice is not unique to New Orleans "voodoo" however and has as much basis in European-based magical devices such as the "poppet" as the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa. In fact it has more basis in European traditions, as the nkisi or bocio figures used in Africa are in fact power objects, what in Haiti would be referred to as pwen, rather than magical surrogates for an intended target of sorcery whether for boon or for bane. Such "voodoo" dolls are not a feature of Haitian religion, although dolls intended for tourists may be found in the Iron Market in Port au Prince. The practice became closely associated with the Vodou religions in the public mind through the vehicle of horror movies.
There is a practice in Haiti of nailing crude poppets with a discarded shoe on trees near the cemetery to act as messengers to the otherworld, which is very different in function from how poppets are portrayed as being used by "voodoo worshippers" in popular media and imagination, ie. for purposes of sympathetic magic towards another person. Another use of dolls in authentic Vodou practice is the incorporation of plastic doll babies in altars and objects used to represent or honor the spirits, or in pwen, which recalls the aforementioned use of bocio and nkisi figures in Africa. One Haitian artist particularly known for his unusual sacred constructions using doll parts is Pierrot Barra of Port au Prince.