Chapter 9. Religion and Syncretism

A city with colorful buildings.
Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

9.1 Studying Haitian Voodoo

So far in this course, you’ve:

  • Critiqued the legacies of colonialism
  • Applied the principles of cultural relativism
  • Compared and contrasted theoretical approaches toward the study of religion
  • Analyzed the limitations of science to explain meaning in religious life
  • Examined the meaning behind religious rituals
  • Examined the meaning being cultural myths

9.2 Where is Haiti?

Haiti is a country in the Caribbean. You can reach Haiti in about 40 minutes after taking off in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Haiti is located on the Western half of the island of Hispaniola and is next to the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s history is incredibly fascinating, and the culture is rich with community strength, resilience, music, spirituality, and great dignity.

  • Cuba and Puerto Rico where it’s called Santeria or Lukumi
  • Cuba, Belize, and Venezuela where it’s called Palo
  • Brazil where it’s called Camdomble or Umbanda

9.3 Zombies

It may surprise you to learn that Haitian culture invented the zombie (Davis 1985). While the zombies in American popular culture are re-animated corpses seeking to sustain themselves on living flesh, the Haitian concept of the zombie manifests in a very different, and much more terrifying, way.

9.4 Syncretism

When cultural trends and traditions spread or change, they do so within the context of particular power dynamics, and anthropologists strive to understand how these power dynamics impact the evolution, maintenance, or loss of cultural beliefs. Different groups of people bring their own cultural beliefs and practices into an inter-cultural interaction, and, the culture of more powerful groups is usually the culture that survives the interaction. The negotiation of power and culture falls upon a spectrum of outcomes that anthropologists examine and, using four different terms to refer to different scenarios, we can more easily discuss how culture and power influence each other.

9.5 History Shapes Culture

What comes to mind when you think of Voodoo? While we typically discourage our students from focusing on stereotypes, in this particular case, they are interesting and appropriate to examine. The word “Voodoo” conjures up images of skulls, blood, animal sacrifice, dark magic, and all of these are, actually, quite reasonable representations of the religion. It is true that Haitian Voodoo incorporates animal sacrifices, utilizes human skulls in some rituals, and — most importantly — it’s true that Haitian Voodoo is feared by most. As Haitian community leader, Willio Deseme, explains,

9.6 What Happened to the Taino?

When we hear the words, “In 1492…” our brains quickly complete the phrase, “…Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Please pause and remind yourself that Christopher Columbus never reached the shores of the United States. Why, then, is he integral to the US’s cultural identity?

9.7 Outcomes From Slavery

There is some debate among historians about which slave-holding colony was the cruelest. As slavery, in all its forms, strives to dehumanize and brutalize human beings it seems impossible to decide which form of slavery was the most horrible. For example: those who strove to own slaves in the United States were known to separate families and sell children; they even forced reproduction in order to profit more. This is an extremely cruel and brutal way to treat humans: particularly cruel and brutal to the women and children.

9.8 The Syncretization of Voodoo

Capturing and enslaving human beings to grow sugar in this region was so profitable that the numbers of people forced into slavery grew rapidly. Historian Phillipe Girard writes, “In 1700, there were…9,000 slaves on [the island]. But, in 1790, at the height of the island’s prosperity, the colony imported 48,000 slaves that year alone, and the total slave population topped 500,000 (Girard 24).” To put this number into perspective, please look up the population of the town where you live. Depending on where you are listening to this recording, you likely live somewhere in LA County; please note:

  • For Southwest College students, the population of West Athens is about 9,000
  • For Pierce College students, the population of Woodland Hills is 70,000
  • For LA Valley College students, the population of Van Nuys is 100,000
  • For COC students, the population of Santa Clarita is 210,000
  • If your community is not mentioned above, please look up your community’s population for reference
  • Have an ancient culture
  • Believe in two sets of divine beings: a major God who exists but is not involved in human affairs and the spirits who are reachable by humans called “orisha
  • The orisha are human like in form and in emotional range
  • The orisha are not inherently good or evil, but are complex like humans

9.9 Makandal

All nations hinge their modern identity and value systems upon origin stories and these origin stories focus on historical heroes. Americans, for example, tell the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and — due to his inherently honest nature — immediately confessing his sin to his father. This story reflects the American ideal that the US was built upon honesty and integrity. The people of Haiti have their own stories that serve the same function.

  • Makandal was African born which reflects the people’s strong connection to their African heritage.
  • Makandal lost an arm during his time working on a plantation which reflects his empathy with the suffering of his fellow citizens and his resilience in the face of enormous brutality. Both of these are central Haitian values.
  • It was believed that Makandal performed powerful magic that allowed him to turn himself into a mosquito. Mosquito-borne diseases played a role in defeating the French during the Haitian Revolution.

9. 10 The Loas of Voodoo

Remember that religion reflects the lived experiences of a people; religion evolves to meet the specific needs of each community. Reflecting briefly on the violent and brutal nature of Haiti’s colonization, you can clearly understand how the religion has earned a bloody, mysterious, and powerful reputation. Voodoo was born as resistance to oppression and reflects the reality endured by its followers.

  • Papa Legba is believed to be the keeper of the underworld. He stands at the crossroads of this world and the next and must first be addressed before one can attempt any Voodoo ceremony (Stein and Stein 234). Papa Legba is believed to speak all of the world’s languages so that he can understand the prayers of all people. Papa Legba is associated with Saint Peter because, in Catholicism, Saint Peter is believed to stand at the gates of heaven.
  • Ogun is believed to be a loa whose job it is to make the world a nice place for humans to live but that he is still working on this project. He is the loa of war, iron and metallurgy and, because he’s often depicted with a sword, he’s associated with Saint James.
  • Damballah is a serpent loa who is believed to have created the Earth by using his coils to shape it and by shedding his skin to create rivers and oceans. Voodoo ceremonies are often performed around a pole that will have Damballah painted or carved onto it. Damballah is associated with Saint Patrick who is frequently drawn with snakes in Catholicism.
  • Erzulie Danto is the spirit of fertility and motherhood. She’s specifically seen as the saint of single mothers, working mothers, and battered women (she’s usually shown as having a wound on her face). Erzulie Danto is associated with Mary.
  • Rada
  • Benign spirits from ancestral West Africa
  • Kind and benevolent
  • “Cool”, composed and rational
  • Petwo
  • Fiery spirits representing Central African and Creole traditions from Haiti
  • “hot”, foreign, fast spirits,
  • powerful, but risky, harsh and demanding
  • associated with slavery
  • Gede family
  • Lwas of cemeteries and spirits of the dead
  • Recognized and honored on All Saints Day and on All Souls Day
  • Gede Nibo is leader, considered Rada lwa
  • Reputation for vulgarity, immorality and depravity
  • Enter services for other lwas through deception to eat and drink the offerings and utter vulgarities to the participants
  • Despite these qualities, they are also kind, helpful and especially protective of children

9.11 The Haitian Revolution

All nations tell an epic origin story and Haiti’s Revolution is a story that intertwines the work of maroons, Islam, the emergence of Voodoo, and the fight against colonialism. The story begins in a Haitian forest called “Bwa Kayiman” which translates to “forest near the Imam’s house.” It was named this because it was a location where Muslim prayers and preaching regularly took place. According to legend, a group of leaders met and held a Voodoo ritual that asked Ogun if they should rebel against the white slaveowners. The ritual led to a positive sign from the divine powers and, therefore, the Haitian people revolted against slavery.

9.12 Voodoo Explains Misfortune Today

Haitian Voodoo serves a variety of functions and, like most of the world’s religions, one of these functions is that it explains misfortune. The following stories are intended to share the way that Voodoo is integrated into everyday life in Haiti.

9.13 Vodun in the United States

The Haitian slave revolt in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had created fears in the United States, where slavery was still practiced, so the goal was to politically isolate Haiti. During the slave revolt the U.S. government, under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, provided aid to the French colonists fighting against the slaves to suppress the revolt and reinstate slavery in Haiti. Jefferson was a supporter of the French Revolution and its ideals but opposed the freedom of slaves in Haiti since he and many of his supporters were slave owners. Despite the success of the slave revolt overthrowing the French colonial rule and creating an independent state, Haiti was not recognized by US as an independent country until 1865, 61 years after its independence. The thirteen-year slave revolution in Haiti led to large numbers of Haitians migrating to the United States, due to turmoil on the island. Many of the refugees arrived in Louisiana, bringing along their culture and religion. This was the first exposure Americans had to Vodoun.

9.14 Early Nineteenth-Century Representations of American Vodun

The contemporary white attitudes towards Haitians and Vodun at the time was both of fear and fascination. Vodun was perceived as a superstitious practice with black magic in New Orleans by non-Haitians in the early nineteenth century. The practitioners of Vodoun were associated with evil and sin and considered a threat to morality and safety. This was displayed by attitudes concerning Congo Square, which was located at the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. In the early 19th century the free black residents and slaves of New Orleans would gather at Congo Square on Sundays. They would set up markets, have musical and dancing performances, and have social interactions with one another. It was a space for performance and reinforcement of African culture. Congo Square was considered to be a place filled with evil practices and debauchery by the white population, but it attracted many white onlookers on Sundays. The appeal of the space was due to it being associated with Vodoun and a place for what the white population considered to be “exotic” practices.

9.15 Late Nineteenth-Century Representations of American Vodun

The representation and perception of Vodun in the late nineteenth century shifted slightly, becoming more intolerant and racist. Travel magazines, newspaper articles and other print media depictions of “black savagery” echoed the white American population’s pre-occupation and anxiety about the dangers of emancipation and black citizenship. Sensationalized stories about Vodun were used as “proof” of black criminality and hypersexuality, reinforcing the popular myth at the time of the black rapist. Depictions of Vodun consisted of animal sacrifice, cannibalism, nudity, drumming, sexual promiscuity, and interracial orgies. These behaviors were reported as regular occurrences in Vodun and used as justification for segregation and racial violence.

9.16 Representations of Vodun and Haiti in the Early 20th Century

Americans learned about Vodun through film and literature in the twentieth century, which inaccurately portrayed and sensationalized the religion for entertainment. It was often depicted as a frightening, superstitious and fraudulent practice that utilized black magic. These depictions and previous century’s repression of the religion resulted in African Americans’ shame and distance from Haitian Vodun. Over time Vodun evolved into Hoodoo in New Orleans around this time. The practice of Hoodoo revolved mostly around control and influence of events and people, instead of veneration of ancestors and spirits. Instead of having community rituals for celebration and veneration of loas, rituals were performed by self-styled Voodoo or Hoodoo doctors on a one on one basis only. In addition to these specialists, there were new spiritual advisors and psychics who operated out of homes, small offices or shops, offering their services to the paying public. The rituals conducted by these individuals were performative and exploitative, strictly done for the purpose of profit.

9.17 Literary Depictions of Haiti in the Early 20th Century

Magazine and news articles depicted Haiti as a land of superstitions and danger. It was described by the author Hesketh Prichard as the land where black people ruled over the white population, terrorizing them and subjecting them to indignities. Pritchard’s book “Where Black Rules White: A Journey Through and About Hayti” was published at the turn of the 19th century and contained impressions of Haiti by the English journalist travelling through the island. The book contained description of Haiti as the “grotesque” culture against the backdrop of the “picturesque” nature (New York Times, 1901). It compared “civilized” America to the “savage” Haiti, where according to Pritchard the people were lazy, engaged in serpent worship and partook in human sacrifice at times through Vodou. Pritchard described “The country is honeycombed by an absolute system of terrorism. The form of government is militarism. But despotle and grotesque as is its rule, it is nothing compared with despotism and caricature of Christian creed degraded and sadly mixed up with this malevolent Vaudoux worship. The Government is a farce, but the religion is a tragedy” (New York Times, 1901). Pritchard’s and other author’s depiction of Vodun and Haiti as supernatural and evil was because the black population was in charge of the island and ruled over the white population. This was the opposite of what was considered to the natural order of things for these white authors from the United States.

9.18 Late 20th Century and Modern Depictions of Vodun

Beginning in the 1960s until today Vodun has continued to be a form of entertainment for American audiences. The religion is still perceived as exotic and titillating by many Americans. Tourists in search of an exotic adventure in New Orleans will often visit the Vodou and Hoodoo shops where they can purchase charms, voodoo dolls, alligator teeth and claws, “blessed” chicken feet and other “spiritual” products. The annual Voodoofest takes place in Congo Square on Halloween, where a number of high-profile bands perform. The festival capitalizes on the Vodun religion and offers an “authentic” Vodun experience through a Vodun ritual and snake dance at dusk.

9.19 Modern Perceptions of Vodun as a Legitimate Religion

Vodun is regaining its earlier religious validity to some extent in the United States. There is increasing interest in the religion by a number of black and white Americans, especially among individuals from the well-educated circles. Events are organized where Vodun practitioners teach the public about the religion. There are also many workshops, websites, newsletters, educational films designed to counter the sensationalism associated with the religion. Many public institutions hold events to educate about Vodun to increase acceptance and understanding of the religion.

9.20 The History of Rastafarianism

An important revivalist movement that occurred in the Caribbean was the Jamaican Rastafari movement. The movement was in response to slavery on the island. Very early history of Jamaican slavery is similar to Haiti. Enslaved people were transported to the island by Spanish colonizers from West Africa. Under Spanish rule, enslaved people were forced to learn and convert to Christianity. During this period there were indigenous populations on the island, who were almost completely wiped out by disease and violence from contact with the Europeans shortly after the transport of enslaved people from West African. As a result, the transported enslaved West African people did not have much contact with the indigenous population. The transport of enslaved people to the island coincided with European Jews travelling to Jamaica around this time to work in sugar production as indentured servants, who later became owners of sugar plantations. Many fled Spain during early expeditions as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. This resulted in increasing contact between European Jews and enslaved West African people, which played a role in the development of the Rastafari movement later in history.

9.21 Examining the Sociocultural Context As A Revivalist Movement Through Symbols

Modern Jamaican society was borne out of slavery. Jamaican Black people lived in the periphery of the colonial world. They were economically depressed, dominated by a small elite white population and a British colony until 1962. Starting in the 1930s and intensifying in the 1960s there was a rise of Black nationalism in Jamaica in response to these conditions. The rising Black nationalism was a resistance to globalization and to British Protestant rule. The resistance to British Protestant rule is apparent in the Rasta symbols.

  • The “Lion of Judah” is one of the most important Rasta symbols, which represents the maleness of the movement. Rastafari is a male dominant movement and women are typically in the periphery.
  • History plays an important role in the Rastafari movement, making it another important symbol. African history is considered to be deeper than Christianity and older than Judaism. This revivalist movement connected itself to African history, which predated the history of slavery and domination by Europeans, as a response to European colonialism.
  • Sins of Babylon — Babylon is considered to be the place of bondage, which represents the white imperialistic political power structure exploiting and holding people, especially Black people, back for centuries.
  • Zion is the counter to Babylon in Rastafari, a utopian place where there is unity, peace and freedom. Ethiopia is considered to be the Zion for the Rastafari movement, believed to be the original birthplace of humanity. The only path to redemption from Babylon is repatriation to Ethiopia.
  • Jah is the Rastafarian name for God and is the symbol of triumph over tribulations of everyday life.
  • The Holy Herb — Ganja — is not smoked recreationally in Rastafari, contrary to popular belief. It is ritually smoked for spiritual reasons and medicinal purposes. Use of Ganja is based on several passages from the Bible that are embraced by Rastas as reasons for use of the herb. These include:
  • “…thou shall eat the herb of the field.” (Genesis 3:18)
  • “He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.” (Psalms 104:14)
  • Dreadlocks are another important symbol of the Rastafari. This is a type of hairstyle where hair is twisted into locs or braided. Dreadlocks symbolize Rasta roots and are a symbol of the Lion of Judah, because their form resembles a lion’s mane. This hairstyle is a rebellion of the system and the “proper” way to wear hair according to the white elites of the society, so they are a sign of resistance and outsider status.

9.22 Exodus and Jamaican Rasta Captivity

Early Jewish and West African people’s interaction during the early history of Jamaica has had an important influence on the beliefs and symbols of Rastafarians. Exodus is one of the most prominent beliefs that illustrates Jewish influence. Rastafarians in Jamaica identified with the captivity of Jewish slaves in Egypt and Babylon due to their history of slavery, bondage and domination by European colonialists. As a result, Exodus has become a central Biblical myth for Rastafarians with a call for freedom from oppression in Jamaica. Popular Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley’s song Exodus revolves around this Biblical story.

9.23–9.26 Slavery, Religion and Salvage Anthropology

Before continuing, please read and take notes on:


“Haiti: Travels in a Land Where Black Rules White”. The New York Times (March 9, 1901). ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.


This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan for Los Angeles Valley College. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Edited by Brian Pierson (Pierce College). Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles