Voodoo is a religion practiced by people of African descent in Haiti, and by people who have emigrated from Haiti. Haiti is a country that occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic occupies the other two-thirds.

The name comes from vodun. This word means spirit in a language spoken in the nation of Benin, West Africa. Outsiders coined the name. They have also spread many rumors about the religion. The origin of the name does, however, indicate something important. Voodoo preserves and adapts many African religious beliefs and practices. Those who practice the religion say they are “serving the spirits.”

Haiti was a French colony (established in 1697) that produced sugar. It was home to a large number of slaves originally from West Africa. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789), the slaves revolted. In 1804 they established their own country, the fi rst republic ever established by Africans. Records from this time are scarce. Nevertheless, it seems that Voodoo played a part in the slave revolt. The religion combines African spirit worship with aspects of ROMAN CATHOLICISM, the offi cial religion of Haiti.

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Those who practice Voodoo believe in a supreme GOD. They call that God Bondye, from the French phrase for “good God.” But Voodoo practitioners consider Bondye distant and inaccessible. Their religious life centers instead on various spirits. These spirits are above human beings, but not so high as Bondye. Some spirits are ancestors; others are associated with natural phenomena. They are organized into “nations.” One common system speaks of two nations of spirits: sweet spirits, which are kindly, and hot ones, which are powerful and energetic. People serve spirits that their mothers and fathers served. They also serve the spirits of the areas where they live.

At its simplest, one serves spirits by lighting candles, saying PRAYERS, and giving offerings. But Voodoo knows larger observances, too. The RITUALS at major festivals include the sacrifi ce of an animal (often a chicken), feasts, drumming, dancing, and singing. The goal of the drumming, dancing, and singing is to bring about spirit-possession. A spirit takes control of a human body, uses it as its “horse,” and in that way communicates with human beings. Major spirits have their counterparts among the Catholic SAINTS, and Voodoo festivals often take place in conjunction with Catholic festivals. At times the Catholic Church has attempted to suppress Voodoo, because it found the mingling of African spirits and Christian saints offensive.

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Although it is possible to serve the spirits on one’s own, Voodoo also has its own religious specialists. A male priest is called a houngan; a female priest is called a mambo. They oversee festivals, practice divination, bless, and heal. Voodoo also has its anti-social side. Those who practice Voodoo call that side the “work of the left hand.” It involves serving spirits that one has bought and using the bodies of the recently deceased for slave labor (zombies).

Toward the end of the 20th century economic deprivation and political instability forced many people to fl ee Haiti for North America. As a result, Voodoo spread to Miami, New York City, and other places in the United States.