Haiti was the island where Christopher Columbus first touched his foot to the New World. It is a beautiful island nation and the world's oldest black republic. It is also the home to the religion called voodoo. Though Roman Catholicism is the official religion in Haiti today, Voodoo is probably the more powerful. Items found on a voodoo alter might be as diverse as a cross, gourds, rattles, and herbs. Statues of Catholic saints might rest next to a bottle of rum and both white and black candles (white candles for positive spells, black for negative ones). Rosary beads might lay entangled with colorful strings of beads used to make gris-gris. Drums and dancing are considered integral parts of the voodoo service. The majority of Haitians practice at least some aspects of voodoo and to not seem to find it in conflict with their Catholic beliefs.
Though voodoo has it's roots in the jungles of Africa, the religion that developed in Haiti is an unusual amalgam of the ancient African beliefs and Christianity. The importation of slaves to Haiti resulted in a wild mix of people from different classes and tribes. An Etheopian priest might be exposed to the songs of a Lybian and the dances of a Senegalese hunter. Tribesmen from Benin (then known as Dahomey), Togo, Ghana, the Congo and Angola, many times unable to speak a common language, yet managing to combine their fragmented ceremonies and religious rituals into a newly cohesive whole. Members of the Fons, Nago, Ibo and Mandinga - all thrown into a Mix Master. Add a dash of Christianity and Catholic saints to disguise their ancient dieties and what emerged was the religion that we now call voodoo.
Voodoo is a religion based one the belief in one God, Bondye. In that respect it is similar to Islam, Judaism or Christianity. There are also spiritual beings called Iwa. The Iwa interact with the people on the earth. They give messages, protect people from their enemies and can influence events. They will often "mount" people during religious ceremonies, enjoying the life they do not have and receiving new energy through animal sacrifice. Also like Christianity, there is good and evil - Rada and Petro. According to most reports, Rada (the good) accounts for approximately 95% of all voodoo activities (with 60% of the activities being involved in healing). Though Petro, or black magic, does indeed exist, tales of zombies, death curses, and orgies are the exception rather than the rule.
During the early days of slavery in Haiti, the slave trade was "justified" by the idea that the African "savages" needed to be saved from themselves. This led to slaves being baptized immediately upon arrival. Because the slave owners feared their slaves would revolt and kill them, slaves were forbidden to have meetings, except for occasional dances on the weekends and meetings for the instruction of the Catholic faith. They were also forbidden to practice their "pagan beliefs" - to do so could result in execution. Slaves were branded and tortured - the horrors inflicted on them resulted in a life expectancy of only about ten years. Families and tribe members were separated in the belief that this would keep them from developing a sense of community. Forced to hide their pagan beliefs from their white masters, they turned their dances into religious meetings and learned to disguise their "spirits" as Catholic saints. They used Catholic prayers to fill in lost areas of their knowledge of religious rituals.
It was during one of these voodoo ceremonies (Bwa Kayiman) in August of 1791 the the Haitian Revolution began. During the ceremony, Ezili Dantar (a spirit) possessed a priestess. A special offering of a black pig was made and all those present vowed to fight for their freedom. This ceremony led to an uprising and the eventual liberation from the French in 1804. During this uprising, many whites were killed and all whites were eventually forced to leave Haiti. Haiti became the world's first black republic. After the revolution, the Vatican did not have any dealings with Haiti for over 50 years. During this time Voodoo continued it's evolution - all Iwa becoming Catholic saints and Catholicism and the practice of Voodoo melding themselves into a single religion. In the early 1940's, the Catholic church again made it's presence felt in Haiti. Voodoo shines were burned and voodoo practitioners were beaten and killed. Though voodoo went "underground", it continued to flourish, gaining popularity with the masses. By the 1950's, the church had begun to incorporate certain elements of voodoo into their services, using drums and African-inspired music.
Haitian Voodoo found its way to the United States mainly through migration in to the city of New Orleans in the 1800's. Today, Haitian Voodoo is practiced by many people across the United States and in other countries, including Americans and people of other nationalities.