by Janice Christensen


What does a Vodoun priest look like? Some days he looks a lot like a UWM professor.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has an exotic accent I couldn’t quite place, echoing back to languages from a few different continents. Haitian, of course.

We started our conversation with an overview of African religions, and their transplanted offspring in this hemisphere. We focused on three primary religions: Santeria, Candomble, and Vodoun.

Santeria is also called Lukumí or Regla de Ocha. It originated in Cuba and was historically practiced by descendants of West African slaves. In the early 18th century, practitioners combined their masters’ pantheon of Catholic saints with their own spirits, the Orisha. This combination now forms the deities of the contemporary Santeria religion.

Candomblé was originally brought to Brazil by African slaves between 1549 and 1888. It thrived for more than four centuries, despite being banned by the Catholic Church and criminalized by some governments. It is now a major established religion, with followers from all social classes and tens of thousands of temples. About 2 million Brazilians (1.5% of the total population) have declared Candomblé as their religion. Candomblé deities, rituals, and holidays are an integral part of Brazilian folklore.

Vodoun is traceable to an African word for “spirit.” Its roots may go back 6,000 years in Africa. Slaves brought the religion with them when they were forcibly shipped to Haiti and other islands in the West Indies.

Relating to Christianity

Adherents of African-based religions are often not exclusive, perhaps combining them with a devout Catholicism with no discomfort.

All of these religions differ from Christianity in several important ways. Although there is an overarching entity that created and permeates the universe, that “god” is completely unknowable and not involved in the day-to-to-day life of humans.

In the African religions, prayers are addressed to spirits below god. African deities are spirits that are not so much worshipped as venerated. People pray to them for favors, and people also pray for the well-being of the spirit.

Another important part of African religions is the veneration of ancestors. Ancestors are the law-givers for all society. This is in contrast with Christianity, where God is the lawgiver.

The Deities

Although African deities have come to be associated with Catholic saints, they are different in several important ways. The thousands of Catholic saints were people who lived and died and are honored in a special way. African deities are spirits. They sometimes possess people in sacred trance, when they act and speak through the bodies of the people they “ride.” But their relationship with humans is unlike anything found in mainstream Christianity.

The “match” between the spirits and the saints has always been problematic, as well. African deities are more complex than Catholic saints. The deities contain all potentials, for good and for evil. They are valueneutral. When human beings call upon them for help, the humans are responsible for the consequences of their actions, not the deities.

Vodoun deities come in families. Just as an illustration of how complex these deities are, here’s a very brief overview of two members of one of these families.

Ezili Freda is a spirit roughly analogous to Aphrodite. She’s a water spirit – sweet water – and a champion of heterosexual love. She has a very light complexion, she’s flighty, and definitely not a mother.

Ezili Danto, who shares a first name with Freda, a deity of motherhood. She is also a water spirit – salt water – and is a champion of lesbianism. She has a dark complexion, and takes care of babies (all babies, including those of Ezili Freda).

The Afterlife

Attitudes toward the afterlife in these religions have changed dramatically since they were imported to this hemisphere.

Reincarnation is a liet motif in most African religions. After they migrated to the West, the belief in reincarnation has mostly disappeared. This could well be because of the influence of Christianity.

Priests of the Westernized religions learn the “secrets” of reincarnation, but the day-to-day practice does not include the concept.

Integration Into American Culture

Despite our current trend toward more conservative Christianity, America has a long tradition of experimenting with religions from other cultures. Why have African based religions not been taken up the way, say, Buddhism has? Professor Bellegarde-Smith has an interesting opinion.

In the ‘60s, he explained, spiritual seekers from America “discovered” India. In the ‘70s, they “discovered” Native American spirituality.

But, he believes, they will never “discover” African religions. There is a feeling that nothing good can come from Africa. There’s the feeling that African religions are somehow dark, sinister, evil.

Instead of benign curiosity, Westerners have responded to African religions with fear and ignorance, and the need to have power over them.

Find out more in these books by Bellegarde-Smith: Fragments Of Bone: Neo-African Religions In A New World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004) Haiti: The Breached Citadel (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990), (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2004 — 2nd edition)


Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is Chair of the Africology Department at UWM, and a Vodoun priest. He graciously agreed to take some time to talk with Currents editor Janice Christenen.

JC: Who practices these religions in the US?

PB-S: Practitioners of Santeria tend to be Cubans, and tend to be professional class. African Americans are drawn to Vodoun or one of the native African religions, and also tend to be professionals. More white Americans are being drawn to the three westernized religions, and are moving into Candomble out of Brazil.

JC: What is daily practice of African religions like?

PB-S: It’s permeated throughout every moment of life. Practitioners have a keen awareness of dreams, and the awareness that not all dreams are dreams. The deities have special days, favorite foods, flowers, oils, etc. There is the awareness of the deities and the ancestors with you at all times. Ceremonies tend to be reserved for very special times, special needs, because they tend to be expensive. One has to purchase special offerings for the deities. This has to do with the idea of sacrifice… to make a request for a deity to intervene in one’s activities, one has to be willing to give something up.

JC: Why is Vodoun surrounded by so much “glamour” and (usually) negative connotation in this country?

PB-S: It’s true, even today. I have heard people say that New Orleans “had to be destroyed” because of the practice of “voodoo” in the city. Of course, I have heard people say it had to be destroyed because of its large gay population, as well. However, Vodoun’s “bad press” started about 1915, when the US invaded Haiti. They encountered some 50,000 Haitian “insurgents” who took exception to the idea. Hollywood kicked into gear, providing all sorts of frightening images of demonic rituals and voodoo dolls. For the record, voodoo dolls come directly from English and German magic practices, not from Vodoun. Patick Bellegarde-Smith at a ceremony “enthronizing” two women priests into the Haitian religion in Miami, 2000. ~Photo from UWM website.

JC: What is the status of women in Africanbased religions?

PB-S: In the native African systems, women are as likely as men to be priests. In the Western, “creolized” versions of the religions, there are differences. In Brazil, all the major Candomble houses are led by women. Cuba tends more to “machismo,” so there are more male leaders in Santeria. In Haitian Vodoun, there are more women priests, but leaders who are associated with temples tend to be men. This is probably more about disparities of income than anything else, because temples tend to be expensive to maintain.

JC: What’s it like to be “ridden” by a deity?

PB-S: When I have been possessed by a deity, I don’t remember anything that happens. Sometimes the person possessed speaks out in public to others, giving them messages from the deity. Haitian deities in the Vodoun tradition are very approachable in the rituals. You can hug them and kiss them, they will speak to you. The Brazilian deities in Candomble don’t speak publicly, tending to relay their message through priests. In the African American Christian tradition, worshipers who fall into religious trances are quickly revived.

JC: Any further comments?

PB-S: There are opposites embedded in everything. The god is good. The god is evil. Not all one thing or the other. Deities can be impressed to do good or to do evil by humans who ask it of them. However, the intentions of the supplicant will come back on them threefold.

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2006