Wednesday, 1st June 2016

Vodou: The Syncretic Child Of Vodun And Roman Catholicism

Posted on 22. Jan, 2010 by in History

One of my recent articles about Pat Robertson’s impressively vicious attack on the native beliefs of Haiti has resulted in people asking me questions about Haitian Vodou. While my experience with the different schools of Vodou is limited, I have done a fair amount of reading about other Afro-Caribbean and South American religions, so tackling the basics of Vodou should not be a very big stretch.

Haitian (as well as Louisanian) Vodou (or Voodoo, as it is better known in the U.S.) is a syncretic religious tradition. In this sense syncretism refers to the blending of multiple religious traditions, often to the point where separating them out again becomes impossible. This is much more common occurrence than most would believe. Indeed, cases may be made that all modern religion is syncretic in nature, as it typically borrows elements from pre-existing religious traditions.

There are two major parts to Vodou. The first part is Vodun, a religion from West Africa which was introduced to the New World by the importation of slaves. The other is Roman Catholicism, the religion of the slave masters.

The major allowance in Christianity for acquiring slaves is for religious conversion. You see, an African left to his own devices would die without ever receiving the salvific grace of Jesus Christ, thus damning him. By acquiring this African and converting him to Christianity, you have saved his immortal soul. It is worthwhile to note it was not proper to acquire slaves that were already Christian, but I am sure this was hardly a serious problem. Buying a slave that was already Christian evidently did not present a major problem in the United States, so I doubt it was any different in Haiti. I only mention this point to illustrate the importance of converting any slaves acquired from heathen lands to Christianity.

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  • pat

    alex sharp:

    interesting article. your observation that

    “cases may be made that all modern religion is syncretic in nature, as it typically borrows elements from pre-existing religious traditions”

    took me back to my undergrad days when i had a preoccupation with platonism.

    we catholics often assume that our doctrine of apostolic succession ensures that our theology is (for lack of a more sophisticated theological description) completely unadulterated. but st. augustine–one of the fathers and patriarchs of our faith–was very much influenced by platonism and neoplatonism. so much so, that augustinian philosophy is often referred to as being “baptized platonism.” i remember reading somewhere that during the early renaissance (in florence, italy) there was a movement amongst catholic scholars to have plato canonized.

    i know our non-christian roots go back much farther than plato (eg- pythagoras, orphic mythology), but one only needs to look at augstine for evidence of pagan influences.

    i’ve always meant to read up on voodoo, but can’t muster up the attention span anymore. so, thanks for the apt and scholarly crash course.

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