Transposing Vodou: Haitian Spirits in the (Virtual?) Diaspora

Alexandra Boutros, in her article, “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” examines the intersection between virtual interaction and Vodou practice, and how practitioners navigate technology and popular depictions. She writes: “digital technologies—the possibilities and limits generated by the interaction between technology and technology use—shape manifestations of Vodou in the digital public sphere” (2013, 239). That is, there are now practitioners of Vodou who have no national or genealogical connection to Haiti and thus Vodou, but who nevertheless have become immersed in its virtual community.

Boutros argues that popular depictions of Vodou, despite often being wildly inaccurate, are also the initial draw for the virtually curious.[1] Because of this, Vodou practitioners that have initial contact online may or may not interact with Haitian practitioners; the demographic has expanded far beyond a connection to Haiti. Boutros writes:

Vodou is a fluid and orthopraxic religion in which multiple voices from multiple geographic centers can potentially address the constitution and the constituents of the religion. This multi-vocality maps itself onto the workings of new media, where social networking and software publishing practices seem to create an all-access public sphere. (2013, 241)

Boutros states that the intersection between religion and technology is often framed negatively; technology somehow dilutes or diffuses the notion of an “authentic” religious experience (and yet again, we bump up against the idea that “legitimate” religion is solely defined by an inwardness and sincerity). Yet there are many religions developing an online presence in the face of the overwhelming amount of virtual interaction increasing in the modern world. Examples range from; Ask The Imam and Catholic virtual confession app for smartphones, to new religions such as pagan technomysticism, and even religions that are born online through chatrooms, such as therianthropy (do watch the short video below, it provides a succinct description of how this fascinating movement emerged).

Boutros examines how these virtual spaces intersect with religion, but I would like to back up a bit to look at how grounded (quite literally, in many ways) Vodou is with Haiti in the first place, in order to then to consider Boutros’ comments.

Karen McCarthy Brown (perhaps best known for her book Mama Lola) writes in her article, “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” that when Africans were enslaved in Haiti their homeland became spiritualized (1999, 82). Practitioners wishing to call upon their spirit ancestors draw a cornmeal veve on the ground of temples or shrines, directed at specific spirits. Veve are considered a passageway through the “watery subterranean world they call Ginen” to a spiritual African homeland (81). The veve’s intersecting lines have cosmological meanings, as McCarthy Brown writes: “It is both a crossroads, the ritually accented place where two roads meet at right angles, and a map of the cosmos itself; both a reference to an intimate corner of human-scale space and a cosmogram” (1999, 82).

Veve Erzulie
Veve Legba

McCarthy Brown argues that the first migration (from Africa to Haiti) transformed Africa into a mystical homeland, one accessible via rituals and the spirits. The second migration (from Haiti to North America) again transformed Vodou practices (it itself a mix of indigenous, African, and Catholic sources; the indigenous Taíno population did not survive colonialism). Haiti, as the geographical location of the spirits, becomes transposed in various ways throughout the diaspora. McCarthy Brown describes Haitians who smuggle small amounts of Haitian soil back to their new residences, but even with access to the soil, certain practices such as pouring libations to the spirits presents a problem in such dense concrete clad cities as New York. She writes:

It is impossible to say how many times and in how many different ways the people who serve the Vodou spirits have to experience the impenetrability of the ground in New York City before they begin to feel that the spirits are starving, and they themselves are slowly being drained of life energy; in New york is it hard to keep believeing that “from up here to down there, in Ginen they hear,” when Ginen is so palpably inaccessible. (1999, 85)

The dilemma of “feeling rooted” then prompts a variety of practices that transpose Haiti in New York and other North American cities. One example is where a Priestess placed a tub to collect the water, rum, and perfume libations that were poured to the spirits. She then bottled the liquid in small containers, which practitioners took home to then spread the “bath” on their skin over three days, without washing, in order to absorb the liquid. The porousness of skin has replaced the absorbency of the earth. McCarthy Brown observes: “In theory, at least, one could feed [the spirits] as well through the skin as through the earth” (86).

Haitian Vodou, then, literally inhabits the earth, and this has cosmological, practical, and even national implications in the diaspora. Boutros is addressing the next step: from Africa to Haiti to North America to the virtual world. She states that as Vodou has become more publicly visible and acceptable, as well as its legal recognition in Haiti, has opened up the secretive and guarded religion to the public sphere (240). As non-Haitians become interested, their connection the earth in Haiti in then negotiated in various ways.

These individuals have no genealogical or geographic connection to Haiti, the cosmological center of Vodou, and they often “find” Vodou not initially through direct contact with Vodou practitioners, but through mediated representations that instigate a desire to seek out more information. (240)

When such individuals become interested in Vodou, it creates somewhat of a clash between those that view Vodou as inherently connected to Haiti, and newcomers without the genealogical or geographic connection. As Boutros quotes one online practitioner, commenting on non-Haitian practitioners:

I can’t argue that my experience of [Vodou is the same as] someone who grew up in a household where the spirits were served regularly. . . My problem with a lot of these sites . . . is that there is very little acknowledgement of that difference. Sometimes that difference can be opportune. I remember some of the things that I didn’t understand about the spirits, and that makes it easier for me to explain things to people like me: North American new-age-types who did not grow up in a culture that served the spirits. But it’s important to be honest about difference and ignorance. ( in Boutros 248)

The concerns over authenticity are then negotiated in two areas: first, in the connection to Haiti as the cosmological centre, and second in terms of how this connection is mediated via technology. This technology is developing its own notions of “space”:

Online religious practitioners often amend the term to talk about cyberrituals and cyberspiritualities, and more mundane concepts such as cybertalk and cybermalls pepper everyday speech. This vocabulary points to a hybridized conception of cyberspace as a terrain that blends the virtual and the actual, making durable links to tangible geographies and undercutting the notion that cyber-identities are free-floating entities with no connection to “real life.” (Boutros 2013, 249)

We may eventually view virtual spaces as benign to the religious experience, its integration into our everyday lives becoming so commonplace that it is no longer considered a threat to our perceived notions of “authenticity.” But as a new technology, is it yet another medium to navigate our religious experiences (such as texts, rituals, images, sounds, our own bodies, and other media). The experiential is always at the centre of how we self-define our religious notions, and virtual interaction is yet another way to mediate that experience: discuss, dissect, advise, consult, and promote our ideas.

[1] It is interesting to note that there is a significant amount of members of the Church of Satan who were also drawn to seek more information because of depictions of Satanism in the media, films, and heavy metal music. This differs somewhat from pre-Internet members, who sought information through occult bookstores and/or various New Age types of activities and groups, wherein pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, newsletters, and bulletins produced by various Satanists for various purposes (magic, fiction writing, essays on Satanism, promoting a particular local cabal to national members, etc.). The difference is the initial level of commitment and certainly the ease of access. Some Satanists of the older generation lament that what they call First Phase Satanism (an overly enthusiastic and sometimes misguided interest in Satanism) is on the increase with virtual interaction, whereas before, it took a certain amount of genuine effort to actually write a letter, partake in a cabal, or attend an information session.

Boutros, Alexandra. 2013. “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” in Jeremy Stolow, ed. Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham Universty Press: 239-259.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. 1999. “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” in Robert A. Orsi, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 79-102.