Chapter 9. Religion and Syncretism

Amanda Zunner-Keating
47 min readDec 2, 2020

What happens when multiple cultural forces are at play?

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

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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

In this chapter, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to engage with all of these concepts as we closely examine religion and syncretism. Anthropologists use the word “syncretism” to refer to the occasion where more than one cultural form fuses together to create a new cultural belief or practice that incorporates elements from the original cultural forces. Haitian Voodoo is an excellent example of syncretism; the following pages will closely examine the evolution of Haitian Voodoo.

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.

While there is much to know about Haiti, a key fact of the country is that it’s the only existing nation on Earth that exists as the direct result of a slave rebellion. During the colonial era, Haiti was a highly profitable sugar cane producing colony that enslaved human beings in order to turn a high profit. In the face of extreme brutality, the enslaved people revolted, killed the slave owners, and directly established a country for themselves. This absolutely inspiring story is central to their national identity and to the evolution of the local culture.

At the same time, Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and much of the world is interested in becoming involved in the affairs of Haiti. The following will examine Haiti’s international relations, religious diversity, economic status, and colonial legacy in order to paint a complete picture of the meaning behind Haiti Voodoo. Through the examination of history and international power relations, we can better practice cultural relativism and we can achieve an intimate knowledge of a religion that is mystifying to the world at large.

The word “Vodun” means “spirit” and a vodouissante is a person who “serves the spirits.” While Voodoo is practiced in Haiti, it’s also practiced in other places including:

  • 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.

In the Haitian Voodoo tradition, a zombie (spelled “Zombi” in Haitian Creole) is a person who has been fed a potion from a Voodoo priest-for-hire (or a “Bòkò”) that makes the victim’s heart appear to stop beating and causes them to present as dead (Davis 1985). After being buried, the person wakes up from their death-like sleep and they are suddenly mindless, compliant, and will do whatever they are told to do (Davis). If you are turned into a zombie, you are essentially enslaved by the person who hired the Bòkò and you will spend the rest of your days doing whatever they tell you to do (Girard 32; W. Deseme, personal communication, July 2020).

Becoming a zombie is the greatest horror in Haitian culture. An interview with Haitian community leader, Willio Deseme explains,

“The real death is when you die and your body and soul are free. But, when you are a zombie you are not alive, but you are not dead. It’s bad because you’ll become a slave and they will sell you. You will be forced to work for the rest of your time until the Bòkò who zombified you is dead. So, you could be a zombie for more than 20 years, and they will use you for a variety of things.”

Zombification in Haiti is often described in the following way, “Slavery is a fate worse than death.” From this belief in and fear of zombification, we can understand that the Haitian people see the human spirit as inherently free and the greatest tragedy is to be enslaved. They would, understandably, rather be dead than a slave.

The fear of zombification is ever-present for two reasons. First, as any fan of Haitian culture knows, there are two documented cases of Haitian people being zombified. The first was Clairvius Narcisse who was pronounced dead by two doctors (including an American doctor) and was buried after multiple days. Eighteen years later (1980), Narcisse returned home and explained to his family that he had been living under the spell of zombification (Davis 1985). A similar event took place in 1979 when Francina Illeus was found alive in a marketplace after having been pronounced dead and buried 3 years earlier (Ibid).

Those two extreme cases aside, the Haitian person similarly lives under constant threat of exploitation from the global economy and international development sector which seeks to mold and “improve” them (or, in other words, to make them do whatever you say).

Consider the following account from Amanda Zunner-Keating,

“I lived in many different homes throughout my time in Haiti, and spent some time living on an affordable compound of expats near the Port-au-Prince airport. This compound was owned by a highly questionable American organization that claimed to be a non-profit (I cannot vouch for the validity of that, and I definitely questioned it frequently). While the organization was owned by a group of Americans claiming to be developing Haiti, all of the work on the compound was completed by local Haitian people (and there was a lot of work to be done).

The compound’s manager, Stephan, had lived previously in the United States but had returned to his home of Haiti a few years back. I knew Stephan for many years, and he was one of the hardest working people that you would ever have the honor of meeting. It was my understanding that Stephan worked this hard because he was a gracious and generous host to anyone visiting his country. On one occasion, I walked into my rented room to find him quickly hammering together a brand new, beautiful, wooden bed frame because my old bed frame was starting to fall apart (it would have been perfectly fine if he had asked me to just put my mattress on the floor). On another occasion, we noticed that a neighbor boy was being abused in his home. We asked Stephan to please go to the home and broker a relationship with the family that would allow the boy to come have lunch with us every day so that we could check on his wellbeing (Stephan was not a social worker, but he still somehow managed to strike the agreement).

If you ever saw Stephan, he was running. He was running to meetings, he was running to fix something, he was running to pay a bill, or he was running to solve a disagreement. Once, sitting around the communal lunch table, an American colleague said to me, “You know that Stephan is a zombie, right?” I asked for clarification and the colleague, laughingly, explained to me, “He works all the time for other people, so we like to tease him and call him a zombie.” In the next moment, Stephan came rushing past our table, holding a large ring of keys, clearly in a hurry to unlock something from storage. My colleague called out, “Zombie! You’re a zombie!” The look of absolute rage and dismay that crept across Stephan’s usually generous and friendly face is a sight that I will never forget. I cannot understand how he felt in that moment, but I can guess that being called, essentially, a recaptured slave by table full of laughing, white “aid workers” who depended upon him to survive was sickening.”

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.

We use the term “syncretism” to refer to an occasion where more than one cultural force fuses together to create something new that still includes elements from the old cultural forces (Winick 520). Syncretism falls on the middle of the spectrum of power negotiation because both cultural forces maintain some amount of power, and maintain some sort of cultural identity, in the interaction. Then, moving out from each side of the spectrum, one of the groups will lose more and more ability to maintain their cultural identity in the face of the more powerful group’s influence.

We can look at Halloween as an example of syncretism. We celebrate Halloween at the end of October because it is based loosely on the Christian holiday that celebrates souls that have passed on to the afterlife (Belk 1990). Many of the actual traditions come from Pagan influences (Ibid). And, at the same time, the holiday is largely defined by the American companies that seek to sell costumes, decorations, and candy.

This holiday fuses together multiple cultural influences that then create something unique while still representing the diverse cultural forces that are at play.

On the far other end of the spectrum is “domination.” We use the term domination to refer to an occasion where one group’s culture is entirely wiped out in the face of a more powerful cultural group. For example, throughout the colonization of North America, the world witnessed rapid and complete loss of many Native American cultures that were systematically wiped out entirely (Guest 81; more citations needed). Some of Franz Boas’ work focused on quickly collecting artifacts, language recordings, and notes about religious and cultural rituals of some of these Native American communities. His hope was to preserve some knowledge of these people to survive their tragic elimination from the planet. This type of work is called “salvage anthropology” or “salvage ethnography.”

Some salvage anthropology was a success. Today, the handful of fluent Passamaquoddy-speakers of Maine are transcribing the recordings of their native language taken by anthropologist Walter Jesse Fewkes in 1890. The youngest living speaker of the language and Passamaquoddy community leader, Dwayne Tomah explained in a 2019 interview that they are using the recordings to, “be able to revitalize our language and bring it back to life again” (Feinberg 2019).

Along both directions of the spectrum, and with varying degrees of power struggles, are “acculturation” and “assimilation.” We use the term assimilation to refer to the event of a less powerful community being forced, through coercion, to entirely lose their cultural identity in the face of a more powerful cultural force. When people are pressured to assimilate, they are typically expected to lose their accent, their native language, their native religion, to stop celebrating their holidays entirely, etc. Although similar to domination, assimilation is different from domination because assimilated people do still exist (but they have undergone intense transformation). Dominated cultures are, tragically, completely lost.

In between syncretism and assimilation is acculturation. Whereas syncretism equally fuses together multiple influences so that each influence can be adapted to meet ever-changing cultural needs, acculturation reflects more of a power imbalance where the less powerful community quickly integrates the more powerful community’s cultural forms without a great deal of context. Research on acculturation typically focuses on the myriad of ways that non-European cultures were forced to quickly adopt European cultural traditions in the face of colonization. European-style dress, marriage traditions, and currency are examples of rapid cultural adoption faced by non-European peoples during early colonial processes.

The reason why we situate syncretism in the center of the spectrum and not on one end as an extreme is because all cultural exchanges happen in both directions with both parties containing the potential to influence the other. As we move forward through our examination of the development of Haitian Voodoo, we will see examples of syncretism, acculturation, assimilation, and domination, so please keep these terms in mind.

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,

“Most people in Haiti fear Voodoo, but most Haitians believe in it. Most Haitians know that Voodoo is not something to mess around — it’s not a game and it’s dangerous.”

It admittedly sounds contradictory to state that Voodoo is central to Haitian culture while also being feared by the majority of people. But the Haitian people do not fear Voodoo in a frightened or confused way, rather, they fear the power of Voodoo out of respect for. As Willio further explains, “Haitian people know that in Voodoo there are two faces: a good and a bad. It depends on how you use it and which Spirit you invoke.”

It is actually quite easy for Americans to understand how Haitians perceive Voodoo because most Americans understand Voodoo in a somewhat similar way. Most Americans and most Haitians, believe that Voodoo contains some kind of formidable power that is not to be trifled with. If you ask the average American to participate in a Voodoo ritual, they will look at you, in horror, and refuse (Haitian people express a similar horror, but it is based on your utter lack of understanding inherent in your request).

Consider the following example from Amanda Zunner-Keating,

“I spent my years in Haiti working with a dozen local organizations including a handful of orphanages. Most orphanages are religiously affiliated and three that I worked with were strictly Protestant. One, the most welcoming and generous, was both Protestant and Voodoo. Although this orphanage had the best facilities and supplies, the children from the three strictly Protestant orphanages refused to attend events at the orphanage that embraced both Protestantism and Voodoo. They were not prejudicial to the children or adults at the organization, but they were afraid to step foot on the premises for fear of engaging with spirits that they did not intend to engage with.”

The popular adage goes that “70% of Haitians are Protestant, 30% are Catholic, and 100% are Voodoo.” This is an important point to highlight. Haiti is a vehemently Christian country: busses and buildings have Bible quotes painted across them and many attend church multiple times each week. It’s not difficult to find two churches on each side of a street that compete with each other to hold the loudest — and earliest — church services each weekday. Haiti firmly loves the Bible and worships Christ; but most also believe that spirits surround their everyday lives. These two religions are not mutually exclusive because Voodoo arose from Christianity and each developed within the context of Haiti’s self-liberation from colonial powers.

Haiti’s history is an incredible story of resilience. The island has witnessed generations of brutality, genocide, and various abuses and yet the people continue to live on with strength and fervor. Haitian Voodoo contains fear and some violence not because the people are inherently fearful or violent but, rather, because they have endured and survived generations upon generations of both. This spirituality reflects the world that its adherents have survived.

Cultural anthropologists study religion without any interest in the “truth” or falsity behind the followers’ religious beliefs (Guest). Instead, we study religion because the endless diversity of ways that spiritual beliefs present themselves are an indicator of what the people’s lived experience is, and has been. Structures, traditions, and the moral fabric of our religions directly reflect who we are, and what we have gone through, as people. Haitian Voodoo does include violence and fear and it does not include any guarantee of fairness or justice. Knowing this, we should not conclude that the hearts of this religion’s followers are, themselves, inherently more fearful or violent. But, rather, we must understand that the elements of this religion reflect the generations of brutality that people living on this island have experienced since the 1400s.

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?

Any student educated in the American school system can quickly name the three ships sailed by Columbus: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María. In 1492 on Christmas Eve, the Santa María crashed off of the Northern coast of the island that we now call Haiti (Girard 18). As Columbus and his men offloaded on to the land, they were approached by the native Taíno people Who were wearing gold jewelry (Rouse 143). Columbus and his men were deeply interested in stealing gold for the Spanish Crown, and subsequently left a group of Spaniards on the island to establish a settlement (Ibid). Using the remains of the destroyed Santa María, the small group proceeded to build a settlement named Fort Navidad (in honor of the date of the crash). Columbus left the island with plans to return. At some point, the Taíno people became privy to the European’s intention to rob their lands of natural resources and promptly killed all of the Spanish settlers. They are described by Irving Rouse as, “adventurers who caused their own demise.”

Only moments into the history of the island we are seeing an attempt to exploit and brutalize a native people and the native people’s violent resistance. This is the first event that shaped the tone of this island’s interaction with European and other global powers.

The Taíno were a native, Arawak people of the Caribbean who numbered around half-a-million (Girard 19). The Taíno called the island, “Hayiti” which is where we get the creole name “Ayiti” today. But, Columbus named the island “Hispaniola” in honor of the country which sponsored him. When Columbus and his men returned to the island they enslaved the Taíno to mine the gold out of their land (Mintz 1985: 33). But the Taíno did not only face slavery, they faced brutality in all areas of their lives.

While colonialism was widely practiced by the majority of the European powers, each European country had their own particular style of colonizing native peoples. The French, for example, were particularly interested in turning their colonized subjects into “French” subjects by spreading their language, culture and religion. The French colonial law afforded a few more dignities than some of the other colonial powers offered.

On the other hand, the British tended to view native peoples as objects to be utilized or to be overcome. Unlike the French who wanted to spread their culture, the British were known to focus on claiming land and resources to benefit the British crown.

The Spanish, however, were notoriously the most brutal in their colonization techniques. As “conquistadors” they sought to pillage the lands, rape, and eliminate the people in order to fully conquer the parts of the world that they were colonizing. This is why much of the Spanish-speaking world outside of Europe is genetically related to the Spanish in Spain. The Spanish brutalized the people who they colonized and this included the Taíno.

Historian Philippe Girard offers us two stories to illustrate how the Taíno suffered under Spanish colonization. He writes,

“Columbus and later Spanish colonists were not settlers in the traditional sense of the term. They did not intend to acquire land, build a log cabin, and become farmers. They were conquistadors: they were ambitious nobles and merchants who looked down on manual labor and dreamed of conquering a strange civilization, killing its leaders, enslaving its natives, and exploiting a quick windfall of gold and spices. Killing the Taíno leaders…they did: The tragic story of Anacaona Illustrates this well. Anacaona Was a Taíno Haitian princess whom the Spaniards asked to organize a big feast for Governor Nicholas Ovando. When she and the other [leaders] gathered for the festivities, Spanish soldiers set the meeting on fire and wiped out Hispaniola‘s leadership; Anacaona survived the fire, only to be put on trial and hanged. Taíno commoners were subsequently forced to work on gold mines and plantations.

Hatuey, another Taíno leader, was so revolted by the Spaniards mistreatment of his people that he fled Haiti for Cuba. Led by Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, the persistent Spaniards landed in Cuba to pursue him. And 1512, after years of guerrilla warfare, Hatuey was captured and sentenced to be burned alive. The Franciscan friar suggested that, should he repent and convert to Catholicism, his captors might show mercy and substitute garroting for the agony of death by fire. Plus, the Franciscan added, Hatuey would spend eternity in Heaven. When questioned by Hatuey if Spaniards also went to Paradise, the Franciscan responded that the best Spaniards did. “The best are good for nothing”, Hatuey snapped back, “And I will not go to where there is a chance of meeting one of them (Girard 20).”

Archeologist Irving Rouse points out that not only was Hatuey burned at the stake, but also his followers were burned (Rouse 156).

Nicholas Ovando, who was mentioned above, was notorious for his brutality on the island. In 1502, the Spanish unleashed an attack dog to kill a Taíno chief in the southwestern part of the island. The Taíno protested this killing and, in response, Ovando kidnapped seven hundred Taíno and knifed them to death in a hut. He then displayed their bodies publicly as a warning to other Taíno seeking freedom (Rouse 154).

While working to mine the gold out of their native land, the Taíno were physically brutalized and exposed to disease (Mintz 2010; 138–139; Rouse 155). Any Taíno who resisted slavery was killed (Rouse 151). When the gold mines were not offering enough gold to please the Spanish king and queen, Columbus and his men kidnapped enough Taíno to fill an entire ship and sold them into slavery for profit (Rouse 151). Some Taíno were shipped directly to Spain to serve Spanish households where they died (Ibid).

The rest of the population was killed (Mintz) causing the Taíno people to be completely wiped out (Rouse 161). No Taíno survived their encounter with the Spanish and we will never again be able to meet a member of this culture. This is an example of domination. While some people in the Caribbean do have partial Taíno heritage, the society — and specifically the traditions on the island of Haiti — was completely eliminated from the face of the earth as a result of colonization (Farmer 123–124; Girard 20). The Spanish even burned sacred items from the Taíno religion under the belief that it was a devil-worshipping religion (Rouse 149), and very few Taíno artifacts have been found (Rouse 159).

This was a successful genocide against the Taíno, and the Spanish subsequently drained the island of gold. Throughout the enslavement and killing of Taíno people, more and more Spanish families moved onto the island to continue colonizing it. Some of these Spanish families brought kidnapped and enslaved Black Africans with them to the island. The Spanish established a hierarchy of enslaved peoples where the Taíno were expected to work in the gold mines but the Africans were expected to serve the Spanish families (Rouse 155). The numbers of kidnapped and enslaved Africans rose rapidly: in 1540, the Taíno were outnumbered by the people brought to and enslaved on the island. In time, when all of the Taíno people were lost, and the island was fully mined of its gold, it was time for European colonial governments to establish a new endeavor on the island. It was around this time that sugar emerged as a popular item for consumption across Europe and colonial powers sought new climates within which to establish sugar plantations. But, without any Taíno to force into unpaid labor, Europe looked to the African continent for human beings to force into slavery.

In 1697, Spain handed over the western half of the island to France who renamed it Saint-Domingue. During this time, sugar production was an incredibly valuable industry and the climates in the Caribbean and the American south were conducive to growing sugar. Haiti, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz explains, “was rapidly transformed into the most profitable colony in the history of the New World” (2010: 89). Again, when we examine colonial history, we must examine the process through which Europe was developed at the expense of the colonized lands and people. Through the process of eliminating an entire native people, stripping the island of its natural resources, then enslaving hundreds of thousands of people, France and Spain were able to amass wealth in the form of gold, sugar, and huge profits while the Taíno and enslaved West African communities were torn apart.

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.

Whereas people who were enslaved in colonial Haiti typically did not survive long enough to have children at all (Girard 26). The violence upon their bodies, disease, and extremely difficult climate caused most to die in a short period. As anthropologist Wade Davis writes,

“Bloated by wealth unlike anything seen since the early days of the conquest, the colonial planter of [Haiti] made an institution of cruelty. Field hands caught eating cane were forced to wear tin muzzles while they worked. Runaways had their hamstrings sliced. Brandings, indiscriminate floggings, rape, and killings were a matter of course, and for the slightest infraction a man was hung from a nail driven through his ear (Davis 191)”.

It may be impossible to decide which form of slavery is crueler, but we do know that the two different manifestations of cruelty led to different cultural adaptations among the people who were captured, moved across the world, and enslaved in each location. Over time, the enslaved people living in the United States’ culture became more and more “Americanized” as new generations were born, forced into slavery, and each new generation was more familiar with American culture than the African cultures of their parents and grandparents.

In Haiti, because enslaved people died more quickly, the French replenished the population by capturing and bringing in more and more people from the African continent. France focused primarily on bringing over people from the West. Because people from West Africa were continuously arriving, the enslaved population in Haiti maintained a stronger connection to their African religion, language, and culture more than those living in the United States. Here is where we can start to track syncretism on the island. French law required that enslaved people be baptized and introduced to Christianity while, at the same time, more and more believers in Yoruban religion were arriving. These two cultural forces fused together — along with a few other cultural influences which we will soon discuss — to start to develop the voodoo religion that we know today.

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

Try to compare your community’s population to the enormous number of people who had been torn from their homes and communities in West Africa and forced to labor under brutal conditions. If you live in Santa Clarita, understand that the number of enslaved people was more than twice the number of every single woman, child and man living in that community (with a much smaller number of European colonizers on the island). While there were 500,000 enslaved people on the island, there were only 30,000 free whites. You may now be wondering, if the West African people on the island outnumbered the Europeans, why didn’t the enslaved people didn’t rebel against slavery? The answer is: they did. They succeeded in freeing themselves. And, Voodoo was central to their liberation.

Over time, enslaved people on the island escaped from plantations and established free communities (Girard). They were called “maroons” and they would retaliate against plantations in order to liberate other enslaved people and to get supplies (Davis 192; Girard 28). It was within these maroon communities that the origin story of Haiti took place.

Remember, “syncretism” is defined as the event where 2 or more cultural forces fuse together to create a new cultural force that still retains elements of the original cultural influences. Haitian voodoo is most commonly considered to be a fusion between Christianity and West African religion but, in reality, there were more religious influences at play during the development of Haitian voodoo. Let’s examine each influence:

First, the people who were captured and enslaved on the island came, primarily, from West Africa. We call the religion “West African Spirit Worship” or which is a polytheistic religion (a belief in multiple divine beings) that believes in the power of nature. West African Spirit Worship holds an enchanted worldview that believes that divine spirits interact with humans and flow through the natural world.

The following facts are taken from Rebecca and Phillip Stein’s book on the anthropology of magic, witchcraft, and religion: West African Spirit Worship is a term that we use to refer to the religions of the Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe people who lives in the southwestern region of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin (Stein and Stein 200). The Yoruba:

  • 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

As stated earlier, French law required that enslaved people be baptized in the Catholic tradition which caused them to be introduced to Christianity (Stein and Stein 232). So, we know that Christianity is central to the development of Haitian culture and religion. However, the priests who led the communities in the colony were not typically the leaders who had excelled in France. Rather, they were members of the clergy who, often, had an ethical or academic lapse in their training (Girard). Historian Philippe Girard calls them “renegade priests” and argues that they were a central force in the unique type of Christianity that was presented to enslaved people across the colonies (Girard 30 and 37).

During this time, West African people living in the French colony were forbidden from practicing the religion of their homeland. As West African Spirit Worship was forbidden, the enslaved people were able to combine the religion with Christianity in order to participate in both religions at the same time. For example: an individual could pray to a Catholic Saint in public and, in their hearts, intend for the prayer to be heard by a West African orisha. Please keep this example in your mind as we will return to it later.

During the time when sugar was rising in demand and France was becoming exceedingly rich (Wolf 151), witchcraft, the occult, and sorcery were increasingly popular in Paris (Girard 30). We use the term occult to refer to any kind of mysterious and supernatural belief system or practice. Throughout human history and across cultures, we see occultism rising and falling in popularity in a cyclical manner whereby people are sometimes very interested in, for example, astrology, psychics, or tarot card readings. You only need to visit Urban Outfitters to see how trendy the occult is today, and, during Haiti’s colonization, the occult was similarly in vogue for the wealthy and powerful of Paris. Naturally, the less powerful colonial French people living in Haiti wanted to emulate the trends of Paris and, themselves engaged in occultism. They would, for example, perform a spell to ensure a good crop (Girard 30) and, as you can imagine, they would require an enslaved person to assist in this magical ritual. When we examine Voodoo rituals, we can see the presence of magical ritual in the religion.

Before West African people were captured and transported across the globe to work for the European colonies, the communities were heavily influenced — and many converted to — Islam. In West Africa at the time, it was common to combine the Islamic traditions with West African Spirit Worship and some leaders of the Haitian Revolution identified as Muslim throughout the revolution. Islam held a unique view toward racism and slavery at the time: in his final speech, Islam’s Prophet Muhammad stated, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness (Afsaruddin 2020). Islamic tradition tells the story of “Bilal” a Black enslaved African who was freed by the prophet Muhammad’s friend Abu Bakr and then offered a position of prestige within the new Muslim community (Afsaruddin 2020). It’s reasonable to assume that such stories pushing for racial equality were well known to many toiling under a race-based system of slavery in the European colonies.

So, at this point, it’s important to understand that multiple spiritual beliefs were present in the colony: Christianity, West African Spirit Worship, Occultism, and Islam.

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.

One such story is the story of Makandal and it tied, directly, to both the origin of Haitian voodoo and to the Haitian Revolution. Makandal is believed to have been an African-born, enslaved man on the island who suffered brutality as a slave, researched the herbs and natural forces on the island and, ultimately concluded that “combining black and white religion together” would generate the greatest power (Girard 29).

Using symbolic anthropology, we can unveil national ideologies by examining the story of Makandal. Consider the following:

  • 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.

Anthropologists examine the stories that people tell in order to better understand their worldview, value systems, and sense of self. Here, I’ll share the story of Makandal told by anthropologist Wade Davis,

“It happened on a plantation near Limbé in the year 1740. At first even the man himself did not notice the iron rollers of the cane press flush crimson with his own blood. By the time the child’s scream alerted the driver to slice the leather traces connecting the horse to the shaft of the mill, the arm was crushed to the shoulder and the blood mixed freely with the sweet sap of the cane. Pain was not new to the slave, and what he felt now was numbed by the rage of an intolerable impotence. His free hand flailed at the press and with all the force of a sinuous body pulled back reversing the rollers withdrawing fragments of his mangled arm. Delirium took him, leading him back on a hallucinatory passage to the land of his birth to the kingdoms of Fula and Mandingo, To the great cities of Guinea, the fortresses in vast markets that drew traders from an entire continent and beyond, the temples that made a mockery of the paltry buildings in which the French worshipped their God. He never noticed the rope tourniquet placed around his shoulder to stem the flow of blood, nor did he hear the call for the machete that would complete the crude work on the press. He felt only the beginnings of the sound, of a single syllable rising from the base of his blood-stained legs, recoiling through the hollow of his gut until what left his lips was no longer his. It was the rattle call of crystallized hatred, a cry of vengeance, not for himself, but for an entire people stolen from Africa and dragged in chains to the Americas to work on land stolen from the Indians.

François Makandal should have died, but the Mandingue slave was no ordinary man. Even before the accident he was a leader among the slaves of the Northern District around Limbé. By day, they had watched him enjoy the cruelties of the overseers within difference, his blood shot eyes casting scorn at the whips of not a cord, or the stretched and dried penis of a bull. By night he had calmed the people with his eloquence, spinning tales of Guinea that had emboldened even the most spirited of men. When he spoke, people considered it an honor to sit by his side and as he slept the women vied for the chance to share his bed, for his dreams for revelations that allowed him and those by him to see into the future. But it was the fearless way he endured the accident in the mill that confirmed what the people had always suspected. Only the whites could fail to note that Makandal was immortal, an envoy of the gods who would never be vanquished.

The accident freed Makandal to wander. No longer fit to work in the fields, he was made a herder and sent out each day break to drive the cattle into their mountain pastures. No one knew what he did during the long hours away from the plantation. Some said he discovered the magic and plants, foraging for leaves that mimicked the herbs he had known in Africa. Others said he sought out the old masters who dwelled in caves, whose footsteps caused the earth to tremble. Only Makandal in his wanderings was not alone, for the mountains around Limbé we’re one of the refugees of the thousands of Africans who had fled the plantations, runaway slaves with a price on their heads known to the French as maroons.” (Davis 189–190)

Makandal’s maroon community grew with more and more influence. He led a campaign that poisoned thousands of white slave owners until he was allegedly captured and executed. However, no one in the colony witnessed his execution and many believed that he was never actually killed (the poisoning continued long after) (Davis). Makandal’s power, influence, and impact is attributed to his spiritual inventions. It’s believed that he was the first to fuse together ideas of West African Spirit Worship, Islam, Christianity, Occultism, and the plants and herbs the Taíno’s native land into a new and more powerful religion; the only religion that could move people to begin the world’s first, and most effective slave rebellion (Mintz 2010: 91).

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.

Let’s briefly pause the telling of Haiti’s history to look over the basic structure of Haitian Voodoo. Voodoo believes in a major god or “Bon Dieu” who is not particularly involved in human affairs (Girard 31). Rather, the followers direct their prayers to the loas (spelled “lwa” in Haitian Creole) who are divine spirits and are much more human-like and who are interested in human affairs (Ibid). Loas often have very human tendencies: many like to curse, make dirty jokes, and may be alcoholics.

As mentioned earlier, under colonial rule, practitioners of Voodoo were not allowed to worship the Gods from West Africa and, rather, would combine their faith with Christianity. Over time, each West African Spirit was syncretized with a Catholic saint in the belief that they were one in the same (Stein and Stein 233–234). Here are some examples of loas in Voodoo and their corresponding Catholic saints:

  • 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.

Practitioners of Haitian Voodoo believe in different “families” or “nations” of loas who reflect the history of the nation. They are the Rada, Petwo, and Gede families. Please note down some of the characteristics of each:

  • 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.

The whites on the island were outnumbered twenty to one (Girard 41). After a long struggle for freedom, the rebellion burned plantations and killed all the white people who enslaved them (Mintz 2010: 91). This revolution is the only instance in human history where enslaved people rebelled and directly caused their own emancipation and Voodoo was a formative cultural force in this success.

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.

Consider to the following modern accounts of Haitian voodoo from Amanda Zunner-Keating,

“(Names have been changed to protect my informant’s identities with the exception of Willio Deseme who’s knowledge and contributions have made this research possible).

When I lived in Haiti, going to the bank was widely considered to be a dangerous event. Although I personally never experienced any violence following the very few times I visited a bank, I did have a friend who was tragically murdered after an ATM withdrawal. So, instead of bringing American dollars to the bank for a currency exchange, expats were encouraged to find a “money changer” (a person who regularly stood at a street corner, at market, or ran a small shop). Money changers will take your dollars and give you Haitian gourdes at whatever exchange rate they saw fit (some better than others).

On one occasion, my expat colleague, Marie, was doing some shopping and ran out of gourdes. She asked her boyfriend (a local), Christophe, to please exchange some money for her at the nearest street corner. Christophe promptly told us that we shouldn’t exchange currency on that particular corner because, in his words, “it was cursed with Voodoo.” Christophe was, and likely still is, a devout Christian and he wasn’t expressing his concerns with trembling fear but, rather, with what Mary Douglas could call “hearty indignation.” Marie, an American without a personal belief in the existence of Voodoo, insisted that he was being silly and that she urgently needed gourdes. Christophe nodded solemnly, walked across the street to exchange her dollars for gourdes and was, promptly, robbed by the money changer.

Christophe returned to us across the street with great annoyance and the statement, “I told you that corner was cursed.” This is very much how Haitian culture approaches Voodoo: it’s an ever-present force that can impact your life whether you are a participant in the religion or not. It is part of their national history and identity which causes great pride, but also, it can lead to misfortune. The near-universality of spiritual beliefs explaining misfortune is precisely the reason why institutions of higher education continue to put the course titled, “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion” on the schedule. Inspired largely by Evans-Pritchard’s work among the Azande (who explained misfortune as “witchcraft” against the victims, this course traditionally explores the myriad of religious traditions that help human beings make sense of a frightening, unfair, and largely uncontrollable universe. As Malinowski argued that religion helps people feel comfort in the face of misfortune and creates a sense of control over our lives, Haitian Voodoo achieves the same goal: it explains why a person robbed you on a street corner.

It is the same in the United States. I have been told that I had a miscarriage because I feared — too intensely — that I would (ultimately blaming the natural process on “bad vibes”). This semi-religious explanation came first from a family member and was then reinforced by medical professionals who told me that I shouldn’t rush into another pregnancy because my “emotions” would make it too hard to conceive (I ignored this advice and was happily pregnant 2 weeks later with my beloved daughter). In our culture, we like to say that “everything happens for a reason,” that “God works in mysterious ways,” or, tragically, that a young person’s life was cut short because “the angels called them back to Heaven.” We do not need to look at a Haitian person’s explanation of misfortune through spiritual beliefs as exotic because they are an integral part of our psyche, too.”

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.

The white patriarchal supremacy of this period appointed itself to be the agent against these dangers, asserting its continuous control over people of color and women in the interest of maintaining social stability. They felt the control over women was necessary, since post emancipation discourse had shifted to interracial sexuality. To emphasize the “danger” of a free black man, white patriarchal supremacy promoted propaganda about interracial sexuality. White women were often depicted with men of color in Vodun ceremonies in these propaganda materials, heightening white anxiety over marriage or any intimacies across the color line as a result of desegregation. While these attempts to maintain control by the white patriarchal supremacy worked in many cases, it did not go unchallenged. There were white women from various social standings in and near Louisiana during this time who took part in Vodun rituals to defy the white patriarchy. Vodun became the tool for assertion of white patriarchal supremacy for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons was that it had ties to African religion and culture. Vodoun was also connected with the Haitian slave rebellion, illustrating the agency and power of the former slaves in Haiti. There were also a number of powerful women of color in New Orleans practicing Vodun, such as Betsey Toledano, Sanité Dédé, Marie Laveau. The social and supernatural power of these women was a threat to the norms of society at the time, challenging the white patriarchal supremacy.

The depictions of Vodoun by the white patriarchal society as dangerous and deranged worked in some cases, but they had unintended consequences. The sensationalized depictions of Vodoun practices drew more voyeurs to the rituals and public events, who were hoping to witness the “savagery” and “debauchery” of the religion. Some African Americans staged bogus ceremonies in public and private places for these onlookers and charged admission fees, capitalizing on the white sensationalism of Vodoun.

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.

The commerce taking place in the name of Hoodoo in New Orleans was perceived as fraudulent by authorities. There were a number of government measures taken against these practices and in extension against the practitioners of Vodun and Hoodoo. The authorities perceived African descent and any practices associated with it as ignorant, superstitious and childlike. Statutes were passed against healing or fortune-telling for money to protect what they considered to be an “ignorant” population. Many black Hoodoo and Vodun practitioners were jailed as a result of these statutes. The white Hoodoo merchants were not impacted by these measures and instead flourished, later becoming known as legitimate pharmacists. These white merchants continued profiting from black customers and the white population interested in the sensationalized version of Vodun. The profit by the white merchants was considered to be a fraudulent exploitation of African American superstitions by some authorities, but no real legal action was taken against them.

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.

There were a number of other books published during this period that further sensationalized Haitian Vodun. Traveler, occultist, journalist and explorer William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929) introduced the concept of zombies to the wider American public. In the book Seabrook describes people in Haiti killed through magic then being brought back to life. These stories exposed Americans to the” exoticism” of the Caribbean and was the beginning of American pop culture’s fascination with zombies. Robert Tallant’s book Voodoo in New Orleans (1946) is a collection of racist and sensationalized depictions of Haiti and Vodun by the Louisiana Writer’s Project. The personal accounts in the book were exaggerated and fabricated to fulfill the eroticism and exoticism of the religion for the reader. Despite its racist representation of the religion and heavy scholarly criticism, it was considered a preeminent source on Vodun by the public.

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.

Even American sports teams have been known to utilize Vodun for their success. The New Orleans Saintsfootball team has been notorious for its bad luck. Many believed that this is due to the Superdome, the home stadium of the team, being built on top of a cemetery, creating the bad luck for the team. There have been various attempts to get rid of the team’s bad luck through different means, including through Voodoo/Hoodoo. Years ago a Voodoo doll was hung outside of the Superdome and buried at a secret site to get rid of bad luck, but the effort was unsuccessful, and the team continued losing games. In 2001 Ava Kay Jones, a well-known Voodoo priestess from New Orleans, was hired to perform a Voodoo ritual to get rid of evil spirits surrounding the team. Her ritual proved to be successful, leading to the team’s miraculous playoff win against the Rams that year. The ritual contained all the symbols associated with Vodou in the American psyche: A boa constrictor, Voodoo doll, gris-gris bag, drummers and dancers. Many of these symbols and items are specific to the American version of Voodoo and not used in Haitian Vodun, one of the main items being the Voodoo doll. The story of the Voodoo ritual’s success for the New Orleans Saints angered a number of Christians who perceived Vodun as dangerous and evil.

The sensationalized depictions of Vodun in American literature and pop culture created a fear of the religion that was combined with fascination. This was due to the perceived mysterious and “exotic” qualities of Vodun. The fascination with the religion, which was exploited in the late 19th century, resulted in the creation of Hoodoo with various practices and symbols that are very different from Haitian Vodun. The fear of the religion was due to its history with the slave revolt in Haiti. Brenda Marie Osbey (2011) has argued that the gathering of black people still triggers an alarm for rebellion in America, explaining the anxieties surrounding the practice of a religion associated with the slave rebellion in Haiti.

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.

English forces took over the island in 1655. The English plantation owners prevented enslaved people from learning Christianity, because they feared that Christian teachings would encourage the slaves to revolt. This means that enslaved people and formerly enslaved people continued practicing African religions, because they were not forced to convert to Christianity. Slavery was abolished in 1838 in Jamaica. This was followed by the Christian evangelical movement of the Great Awakening, which swept through North America during the 1860s. This movement led to black churches being formed in Jamaica, where thousands of ex-slaves converted to Protestant Christianity.

Jamaica remained under British colonial rule until 1962. During this period a small white elite population ruled the island, with a small black elite community and a large impoverished black population. The socio-economic conditions of the island resulted in the development of Rasta ideology among the working class and poor black population.

Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was an important figure among the working-class black people of Jamaica. He was a political activist, journalist and publisher. Garvey was born in Jamaica to a working-class family. His family was considered to be on the lowest end of Jamaican social hierarchy, which was based on skin color. In 1914 Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His goal was to create a worldwide fraternity of Black people and promote race pride to restore their lost dignity. Garvey believed that Africa was a place for repatriation for black people and predicted that a “black king” would one day be crowned in Africa. This prediction was followed by an event in Ethiopia that confirmed Garvey’s argument for many of his followers.

In 1930 Prince Ras Tafari was crowned as the king of Ethiopia. Upon his crowning Ras Tafari claimed himself as Emperor Haile Selassie, which means “Mighty of the Trinity”. Haile Selassie’s crowing as emperor was seen as fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy in the Americas, especially in Jamaica.

During this period the Rastafarian movement begins and gains followers. Haile Selassie gives himself the titles of King of Juda and the King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God, linking his lineage to Solomon and Sheba. These events and titles are perceived by the Rastas as confirmation of Selassie being the messiah prophesized in the Old Testament.

Leonard Howell (1898–1981) aka The Gong was one of the first Jamaican preacher of the Rastafarian movement. In the 1930s, shortly after Ras Tafari became the emperor of Ethiopia, Howell preached that Haile Selassie was “the Messiah returned to earth” and Ethiopia was the promised and idealized land. Howell was arrested and jailed for two years for expressing hatred and contempt for the Jamaican government in his preaching. Upon Howell’s arrest his Rastafari followers withdrew to rural Jamaica and formed the Pinnacle Commune.

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.

When tracing the history and rise of Rastafari as a revivalist movement we understand how it has become a religion of resistance to domination and slavery, similar to several other syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions in neighboring islands. However, its form is different from the other syncretic religions and this is due to the British colonial rule in Jamaica. Many syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions incorporate numerous elements of Christian symbols and beliefs. These groups were originally ruled by Catholic colonial powers, whether it was Spanish, Portuguese or French. Catholicism is more fluid and accepting of modifications of symbols, allowing different cultures to adopt many of its elements and adjust them to their indigenous religious beliefs and practices. Jamaica, however, was dominated by Protestant British rule that prevented the slave population from learning Christian teachings. Conversion to Christianity happened much later and they were through Evangelical Christian teachings. Unlike Catholicism, Protestant and Evangelical Christianity do not allow for modifications, not leaving much room for fusion of old religious symbols and traditions with the new religion.

The revivalist movement of Rastafari that developed later directly challenged Protestant and Evangelical Christian religious ideals. This was done to restore the lost racial dignity of the black population that according to Rasta beliefs was lost during European domination.

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.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press, 2010.

Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel, Haiti, ; and Universal History. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.

Dolin, Kasey Qynn. “Words, sounds, and power in Jamaican Rastafari.” MACLAS Latin American Essays(2001): 55+.

Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: the Aftershocks of History. Picador, 2013.

Farmer, Paul, et al. Haiti after the Earthquake. PublicAffairs, 2012.

Girard, Philippe R. Haiti: the Tumultuous History — from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Huffman, Robin. “New Religious Movements & Rastafarianism” Creative Commons licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Harper, 2009.

Jacobs, Francine, and Patrick Collins. The Tainos: the People Who Welcomed Columbus. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992.

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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.