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The African ancestors of Haiti carried diverse spiritual beliefs to the Caribbean. They believed that song, drumming, and dance had the power to attract spirits (Loas) who would then interact with their communities through human mediums (honeun and Mambos), often to bring balance and healing to the community.
During the first decades of the Republic traditional Afro-Haitian spirituality evolved relatively free from the interference of State and Church, and it laid a foundation of belief resistant to subsequent forms of persecution. Although we may describe it as heterodox, with much regional variation across Haiti, the belief system maintains consistency sufficient to give it one name: Vodou, a word meaning “spirit” in the language of the Fon of Benin.
Like their cousins in Africa, followers of Haitian Vodou believe in a supreme creator whom they call Bondye (French, Bon Dieu). All spiritual forces manifest Bondye—as cosmic energies, natural forces, or human archetypes.
The human soul links the physical dimension with the spiritual.
Vodou has drawn an elaborate theory of the soul. A person’s individual life force and consciousness interact at all times with the lwa, a term taken from the Yoruba of Nigeria to signify spirits that have the power to possess the physical body.
Vodouists have developed a remarkable ritual that they call a “dance” in order to serve the lwa and speak with them through human mediums. A dance, which celebrates the feast day of a spirit, a Vodou initiation or marriage, or simply good fortune, resembles a party in many ways, so servants might call it a fèt (French, fête; English, feast). They offer the spirits food, drink, music, and a rich display of visual imagery.
During this all-night party, servants salute the several nations of their African ancestors whose spirits continue to play a role in their lives. The nations differ in importance in the different regions of Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, the melting pot where many Haitians from all regions have settled in search of work over the last century, a dance salutes spirits of the Rada, Djouba, Nago, Petwo, and Gede nations, in that order.
Music, dance, and possession performances reveal the character or temperament of each nation. The dance, then, is both theatrical and dramatic, and its actors include a priest, a song leader, a chorus (which also dances), drummers, members of the community, and, of course, the possessed.