The name Vodun can be traced back to the African word meaning spirit, which is central to the Vodun tradition. West African religion has gone through a series of transitions since the arrival of Europeans and their Christian beliefs to the Ivory Coast. The old religion of West Africa was not forgotten, but made way for a union with Christianity forming the new Vodun religion that is practiced today in most parts of the world. The roots of Vodun go back nearly 6,000 years on the African continent in parts of Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, where Vodun evolved and spread to the Yorubans who elevated this practice beginning in the 18th century. Vodun is sometimes referred to as voodoo, vodoun, and vodou.
During colonial times, the import of slaves from the West African region to Haiti began a new episode in the history of Vodun practice when the new land brought challenges to the old religious and cultural practices. The slave masters that ruled over the newly conquered people of West Africa actively suppressed many aspects of Vodun practice. Many Vodun priests were tortured, killed, or imprisoned for their religious beliefs and practices.
The Roman Catholic Church, upon the arrival of West African people in Haiti and other West Indian islands, baptized slaves. Many Vodun believers, fearing the same fate as their priests and other members, created an underground society in order to continue the veneration of their spirits and gods. Those who practiced Vodun adapted some of the Christian saints into Vodun practice and culture; the saints were given Haitian Creole names, thereby syncretizing Christian and African-based religious traditions.
Similar to Christianity, Vodun is a religion of many traditions and practices. As each path (denomination) of Christianity has a different method of worshipping and interpreting biblical texts, so does Vodun have different paths that the devout take to worship. Each Vodun group worships a slightly different pantheon of gods and spirits known as the Loa (lwa), which literally means "mystery" in the Yoruba language. The almighty God called Olorum is unknowable to the Vodun believers. He governs the lesser God Obatala who he commissioned to create the earth and all the creatures and other life forms that inhabit the Earth. Adherents and scholars of Vodun interpret these two beings as representations of God and Jesus in their position of being knowable and unknowable.
Both Christianity and Vodun share belief in a supreme being. The Loa resemble Christian saints in that they were once people who led exceptional lives and were given a single responsibility in life. Both share a belief in an afterlife; the centerpiece of religious ceremonies (mass) in both practices is a ritual sacrifice and consumption of flesh and blood. As Jesus said to take his body and drink his blood in memory of him, the Vodun offer animal blood and flesh to the Loa. The two traditions also share a belief in the existence of invisible evil spirits or demons that attempt to steer humans off their path of goodness. Followers of Vodun believe that each person has a met-tet (master of the head), which corresponds to a Christian's patron saint. Each person has a soul composed of parts, including gros bon ange (big guardian) and a ti bon ange (small guardian angel). This concept is also known in Christianity as the belief in angels who are God's servants and protectors of humans.
The rituals of the Vodun have the distinct purpose of making contact with a spirit to gain favor through offerings of animal sacrifices and other gifts to gain a higher standard of living or improved health. Humans and the Loa have a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other. Humans give the Loa food and gifts, and in exchange the Loa give rewards. Rituals are also done to celebrate events in a person's life such as birth, death, and marriage.
Each ritual of the Vodun is carried out in a structured fashion beginning with the feast that is conducted before the main ceremony. Next there is the creation of the veve, the pattern of cornmeal or flour on the floor, which is unique to the Loa for which the ritual is being performed. The participants in the ritual chant and use rattles and drums that are purified, and together these instruments provide a very powerful part of the ritual. While some participants are conducting the instruments and chanting, the houngan or mambo dance escalates with intensity until the Loa possesses them. The ti bon ange of the priest has his or her body, and the spirit of the Loa has taken control. The possessed priest now behaves like the Loa. Both the houngan and mambo confine their activities and powers of Vodun to "white magic," which is used to bring forth fortune and healing to members of the Vodun tradition. People known as caplatas perform acts of evil sorcery called "black magic," which has also been called "left-handed Voodoo."