A pe, or vodou altar

Before we go any further, it should be made clear that the name of the Field Museum’s new exhibit is pronounced “voh-DOO.” Also, vodouists don’t make those little cloth dolls to curse their enemies; they use them to carry messages to their ancestors and other deceased loved ones. And finally, oungan and manbo, vodou priests and priestesses, cannot raise the dead. A zonbi is not a reanimated corpse, but a body that’s been robbed of its soul and enslaved by a master—and given the history of both vodou and Haiti, which are inextricably intertwined, that’s about the worst thing that can happen to anybody.

The exhibit consists of 300 ceremonial objects culled from the 2,000-piece Lehmann Collection, now held by the Foundation for the Preservation, Enhancement and Production of Haitian Cultural Works in Pétion-Ville, Haiti. The curators, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique and Mauro Peressini, have written all the explainer text in the first-person plural, as though the vodouists of Haiti are explaining their religion directly to you. It could come off as condescending if their intended audience were familiar with vodou and its rituals, but, considering all the misconceptions that have sprung up about vodou (starting with the thing about the cloth dolls), that’s pretty unlikely.

A healing chair

Vodou has been practiced in Haiti in some form or another since the 16th century, when it was still a French colony called Saint-Domingue. The first vodouists were escaped slaves, called maroons, who hid in the forests and mountains of Haiti along with the First Peoples, the remains of the tribes that had lived on the island prior to 1492. The French, suspecting that slaves would eventually outnumber slave owners, had made sure to import Africans from tribes that didn’t speak the same language or, even better, were sworn enemies. But in the woods, the maroons developed a common language, Creole, a mix of French, Portuguese, and African languages, and formed a common religion that combined African and native spirits with a few elements of Christianity. (The word vodou itself comes from a term for “spirit” in the Fon language, spoken in what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin.) “Vodou helped unify disparate groups,” Carlo Sterlin, a professor at the University of Montreal, says in one of the talking-head videos around the exhibit. “It led to independence.”

“On the 14th of August, 1791, a [vodou] ceremony initiated the [Haitian] revolution,” says Beauvoir-Dominique, a professor of anthropology at the State University of Haiti and also a practicing vodou priestess. “It was in Crocodile Woods, and there were representatives of all the major groups. There was thunder. They prepared to fight for a long time. They killed a pig and swore to be free. A week later, there was a fire and the colony was destroyed. It was the start of the war.”

Workroom of a vodou secret society, where vodouists consult with spirits to solve community problems
  • Canadian Museum of History, Frank Wimart
  • Workroom of a vodou secret society, where vodouists consult with spirits to solve community problems

Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804. August 14 is still a major vodou festival. But soon after independence, Catholicism was declared the official state religion, and vodouists went underground, forming secret societies in order to avoid persecution. (The exhibit contains a replica of a badji, a secret society workroom.) In 1941, President Èlie Lescot instituted an antisuperstition campaign that required vodouists to officially renounce their religion in favor of Catholicism. (The vodouists outwitted the government by beginning their oath with the word Zomangay, or “I promise,” which also happens to be the name of a vodou spirit, or lwa.) President Jean-Bertrand Aristede officially recognized vodou as a state religion in 2003, but vodouists still feel like outsiders, and secret societies still exist.

Vodou, though, is integral to Haitian society. “Vodou is generally a social activity,” says Beauvoir-Dominique. “It’s important to get together, to sing and dance and drink libations and eat and find communion. Some ceremonies last for a week. Different divinities are honored. There’s a procedure, the ‘ruling.’ There are healings, physical, mental, and social. There’s joking, passing of history. We tell stories. It’s how society occurs. We look toward the future and bring about change.”

Èzili Dantò as a black madonna

There are 401 lwa, spirits that serve as intermediaries between humans and the Gran Mèt, or Grand Master. There are lots of statues and paintings of various lwa at the exhibit, and also a family tree that shows how the lwa are descended from African tribal spirits and related to one another. Some lwa occasionally take the form of Christian saints; Èzili Dantò, for some reason, is usually portrayed as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland. The second and larger of the two rooms of looks like a vodou altar, packed with various lwa, in all their colorful, sequined glory.

The exhibit contains video footage of several vodou ceremonies (some shot by Beauvoir-Dominique), including a healing and a funeral. Vodouists consider death an occasion for celebration because it’s not the end of anything, just the passage into another realm of existence. “The spirits of death are very sexual,” says Beauvoir-Dominique. “There are a lot of pelvic movements. They drink hot peppers, bathe all over in hot peppers, and smoke lots of cigarettes.”

Most of all though, Beauvoir-Dominique says, vodou is about restoring balance to the world. “Every day is sacred,” she says. “It’s very holistic. Everything is one. It’s about the unity of the universe. Man is not apart from nature.”