The religion originated when the island nation was a French colony. The French suppressed the religious practices slaves brought with them from West and Central Africa, forcing them to convert to Catholicism. As a result on the blending of cultures, Vodou incorporates the saints with the loa, or spirits, of their African roots; the Christian god is merged with the African creator god.
One of three state-recognized religions in Haiti, some two thirds of the country’s 10 million people are said to participate in its rites.
The Le Saut waterfall near Saut-d’Eau, Haiti, holds cultural significance to both Catholic and Vodou practitioners. In the 19th century, it is believed that the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel (or the closely associated Vodou Lwa, Erzulie Dantor) appeared on a palm tree there. A French priest, afraid of the superstition this would inspire, cut the tree down, but the area nonetheless became an important religious destination for Haitians, akin to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.
The falls are the site of a large, important religious pilgrimage during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, held annually from July 14–16. A Eucharistic rite is held during the festival, as well as various Vodou rituals. The penultimate devotional activity is bathing in the waters of the falls, and asking favors of the Virgin, or Erzulie.
A little more than 100 KM to the north, in Souvenance, hundreds of devotees of Vodou journey every Easter to visit a holy temple in a pilgrimage that has been occurring for more than 200 years. The village, some 90 miles north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, was founded by freed slaves from the West African country of Dahomey, now Benin, and is considered to be a direct link to the ancients. The village temple is one of the most important sites of the Vodou religion.
During the five-day ceremony, devotees dress in white and wearing white scarves wrapped around their heads. The ceremony includes drumming, dancing, chanting, and sacrificing bulls, rams, and goats. The sacrificed animals, with slit throats, are passed among the believers so that the blood soaks the white garments they wear. Some believers hold the dead animals above themselves so that the blood drips down onto their heads. The sacrifices are devoted to the warrior god Ogoun.
Worshippers dance throughout the night, imbibing rum and cane liquor and ingesting various herbs. The loas, or gods, are believed to take possession of some of the worshippers during the service.