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Haitian Vodou Priest
Leader in Haitian Vodou
Houngan ceremony ritual.jpg
Houngan ceremony ritual
Religious originsSenegambia
Parent tribeFon
LanguageEnglish, French, Fon
ReligionAfrican Diaspora

Houngan or oungan is the term for a male priest in Haitian Vodou (a female priest is known as a mambo).[1] The term is derived from the Fon word hounnongan. Houngans are also known as makandals.[2]

Haitian Vodou is an African diasporic religion, which blends traditional Vodun from the Kingdom of Dahomey with Roman Catholicism. In similarity to their West African heritage, Houngans are leaders within the community who run temples (ounfó) to respect and serve Loa (or Iwa) alongside the Grand Maître (grandmaster or creator).[3] Loa are spirits, encompassing a collection of Yoruba gods and Roman Catholic saints. Loa are sometimes considered ghosts, who manifest themselves in people during Vodou ceremonies. Each Loa has a distinct dance rhythm, song, sacrificial victuals, and clothing.[4] Loa choose Houngans whilst they dream, where they are instructed by the gods of the Vodun to be their servants in the mortal world.[5] It is the Houngan's role to preserve rituals and songs, maintaining and developing the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole.[6] Houngans are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage, performing rituals for the community - death and marriage ceremonies; healing rituals; initiations for new priests (tesses); creating potions and casting spells; and dream interpretations.[7] Sometimes they may also be bokor (sorcerers).

Dutty Boukman is a Houngan known for sparking the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791, working together with Cécile Fatiman to inspire and organise the slaves for the revolution. Other notable Houngans include artist Clotaire Bazile, professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, and Don Pedro venerator of the Petro loa.


Haitian Vodou originates from the Kingdom of Dahomey which makes up a part of modern-day Benin and western Nigeria. During the slave trade, thousands of people from Dahomey were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic to islands in the Caribbean. During the French Colonial Period, the economy of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) was based on slave labour working on sugar plantations. These West African natives brought the Vodun culture and religion from their homeland to Haiti. Vodun alongside the western enforced Roman Catholicism fused to create what we know as Haitian Vodou. Therefore, there are many elements of Haitian Vodou that can be traced back to Dahomey origins.

Alongside Vodun and Roman Catholicism, Haitian Vodou also has elements of African forms of Christianity, Islam, and Celtic sailors’ mythology which came to influence Haitian Vodou on the slave boats and in ports. This blend of traditions gives Houngans a reputation of being “cosmopolitan” in their manner .[8] Houngans are responsible for keeping the vitality of Haitian Vodou alive and adapting it to 21st century needs. Author Ian Thomson stated that a “voodoo priest is usually an astute businessman,” proving that both the Houngan and the Haitian Vodou religion are flexible and able to adapt to their changing environments to survive.[2]


In Dahomey, the term Vodun is synonymous with the prefix hun-, which lends itself to the root of the name Houngan amongst other terminologies such as Hounsi and Hounfort.[8] The ending -gan, also originates from Dahomey, meaning “chief of spirits” or in other words “priest”.

Vodou priesthood[edit]

Houngans can be chosen in three ways – through a dream-like experience in which a Loa informs that they are chosen as their servants, having visions, or through degradation and transference rituals after an important Houngans death.[5] Each Houngan has authority in their own temple, however, there is no official hierarchy within Haitian Vodou.

To become a Houngan, one must first undergo initiation. First, a period of isolation and seclusion (typical of an African initiation) known as Kouche Kanzo must take place.[9] Then Lave Tèt (“the washing of the head”) takes place, which is a ceremony where one's hair is washed seven times with a mixture made of plants to spiritually cleanse in order to better receive the Loa. Then, various rituals and sacrifices are made. This is often a lengthy and expensive process, as numerous items have to be purchased such as the presentation of Iwa's favourite food and drinks, and special handmade ceremonial clothes.

Upon a visit to Paka Loko (the patron of the Mambos and Houngans), an Ason (sacred rattle) is given to the Houngan as the mark of their priesthood. Houngans also receive a spiritual name from Papa Loko which is used as identification amongst other Houngans and Mambos.

Rituals and ceremonies[edit]

Due to the large Catholic population in Haiti, many Haitians are both practicing Catholics and of the Vodou religion. Therefore, Vodou ceremonies are not permitted to take place during major Christian holidays such as Christmas. Some features of Catholicism make up part of Haitian Vodou such as Bible readings, prayer recitations, and candle usage.[7]

The Houngan has full control and a central role in ceremonies[7] each Houngan or Mambo having an original take on the style of ritual performed.[10] They serve as the middlemen between followers of Vodou and Loa. Customary colours for a Houngan are red, black, and white.[11]

Houngans may have students or assistants called badji-cans.[9]


Consecration is a way of dedicating to the sacred and is performed in Haitian Vodou by signing a cross with equal arm length over an item, person, or in the space which should be consecrated. A Houngan typically performs this and may use a piece of ginger leaf or another sprig dipped in water to make the blessing.[6] The Houngan will first align their bowl of fleur ginen with the cosmos in which they stand centred. Then, the vire (a ritualised set of turns and dips to orient the body) is performed, whilst holding a candle and cup of water in the hands. After this is complete, each of the four directions is saluted. After this, the Houngan places the water cup on the ground and touches the earth with the back of his hand, saying, “we come from the earth and to it we will return.” Finally, a different vire is performed and the Houngan with his asson beckons the audience to sit. When everyone is seated, songs for each Loa and Vévé are sung repeatedly throughout the night.

Death rituals[edit]

After a death, family members may visit a Houngan to find out who was responsible for the decease.[5]

Desounen is a death ritual and the first of a yearlong remembrance to be performed after the death of a Vodou initiate. The Houngan places pieces of the corpse, such as nails or hair, in the deceased's govi. Loa with whom the deceased had a special connection (often family Loa), are called upon and asked to possess the body one final time. Then sacrifices are made to the Loa and blood is dripped onto the corpse. Loa are asked to permanently leave the body and find peace in a sacred necklace worn by the deceased and now kept in a govi. This officially releases the gwoboanj (sacred life force) from the corpse, letting the gwoboanj free to find a new life.

A year and a day after the death, it is necessary to remove the gwobonaj again to ensure the safety and health of the relatives of the deceased.[9] This ceremony is called retirer d’en bas de l’eau (“to remove from the bottom of the water”).[4] This is the final binding of the family Loa to the govi, achieved by the Houngan through songs, dances, and prayers to prominent Loa.

Loa veneration[edit]

To summon each Loa, a specific Vévé must be traced. The Houngan writes these out in his personal notebook, with each Loa having unique formulae with specific diagrams and instructions.[6] These instructions include specific drum rhythms, dance movements, and songs.[10] The specific combination of multi-sensory media invokes Loa to leave the Vilokan (abode of the Loa) and possess the Houngan during the ceremony. One or multiple Loa can be summoned as necessary for the occasion.


The home of Loa is said to be an island below the sea in the mythological city of Ville-aux-Camps.[2] Few living persons have entered the city, however, contact with the city is more common and can be achieved through the Houngan. The Houngan first invokes Legba (Loa of the crossroads), who allows further communication with the divine world, acting as an interpreter and protector for Loa. Legba is called upon through rhythmic dance and song alongside a Vévé drawing.

Spirit possession[edit]

Spirit possession usually occurs at ceremonies, where a few participants may become momentarily possessed by Loa, who are invoked by the Houngan. The possessed may gain the characteristics of the chosen Loa and be able to perform unusual feats such as touching a hot iron without scald marks. Possession may also occur outside of a Vodou ceremony, but only in times of emotional stress.[12]

Pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau[edit]

A pilgrimage to the village of Saut d’Eau, in central Haiti, takes place every annum by followers of Haitian Vodou. On July 16, thousands gather at the waterfalls just outside the village to pay respects to the Virgin Mary and Ezili Freda Dahomey. Pilgrims bathe in the waters to ready themselves for spirit possession and healing.[9] Houngans make tiny temples in jungle clearings nearby the waterfall, where they dance with pilgrims holding blue and red ribbons, tying them around trees to rid themselves of ill health.[13]

Notable and famous Houngans[edit]

Anti-slavery advocate, Dutty Boukman, was born in Senegambia (modern-day Senegal and The Gambia) and was brought to Jamaica during the slave trade. From there, he eventually ended up in Haiti, where he would be a missionary in starting the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Boukman was a Houngan therefore, he held significant influence over the slave population, making it possible to spark a slave revolt. Boukman was also known as “Zambo” to his followers.[2] On August 14, 1791, Boukman alongside Cécile Fatiman (a mambo), went to the woodland of Bois-Caïman in the Northern part of Haiti. Here, a Vodou ceremony took place. Legend obscures the details of the ceremony. As a diasporic religion, orality plays a large part in the history of Haitian Vodou, therefore there are many disagreements between historians as to the exact events which took place. The only written records were by the French occupation, therefore have questionable credibility. The largely accepted story is that Fatiman is believed to have contacted the West African deities involving animal sacrifice and an oath. Boukman is thought to have delivered a passionate speech calling the enslaved Africans to venerate their own original Supreme Being and to oppose the “false” Christian God. Boukman's speech concluded with Route lalibete nan tout ké nou! (“Listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us!”). Therefore, the speech had not only religious purposes but also sparked a desire for liberty and freedom amongst the slaves.

Another notable Houngan is artist Clotaire Bazile. He started his creative career making Vévé (sacred images drawn on the floor by scattering powders), but, all Houngans undertake this ritual, so Bazile was not officially considered an artist at this time.[3] In 1973, Loa, in Bazile's dreams, instructed him to make flags for his temple in Port-au-Prince. In 1980 Bazile opened a workshop where family members and friends can contribute to his work. His designs are distinctive geometric forms and drawn from dream memories before being transferred on cloth. The process is similar to procedures undertaken by imams and marabouts to create divination or amulet. In a 1993 interview in Brookline, Massachusetts, Bazile described the process of being chosen by Loa to undertake his artwork, “Since the Iwa chose me, I was obliged to do what they wanted. It’s an overwhelming experience to be pursued by the Iwa. There are two possibilities: either you do what they want or you die.” The flags made by Bazile have symbols that represent each group of Iwa, therefore having the power of the Iwa in them. The flags are baptised for ritual use to activate this power. Bazile also makes Paquet Congo (dressed bottles) which signal to the Petro Iwa.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is another notable Houngan, who is the professor of Africology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Houngan Don Pedro (or Don Petwo) lived in the late 18th Century and was an active participant in the struggle for Haiti's independence in 1804.[9] Pedro was gifted with clairvoyance and created a fast-paced dance to respect the Petro loa, which are named after him.


  1. ^ Corbett, Bob. "INTRODUCTION TO VOODOO IN HAITI". Archived from the original on 6 October 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d Claudine, Michel; Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick (2006). Vodou In Haitian Life and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. ^ a b Wexler, Anna (1997). "An Interview with Clotaire Bazile". Callaloo. 2 (2): 383–398.
  4. ^ a b Fleischhack, Maria; Schenkel, Elmar (2016). hosts - or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media. Peter Lang AG.
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  6. ^ a b c Stephen, Finley; Guillory, Margarita Simon; Page, Hugh R. (2014). Esotericism in African American Religious Experience (19 ed.). Brill.
  7. ^ a b c Seraphin, H; Nolan, E (2014). Rituals and traditional events in the modern world. Routledge.
  8. ^ a b Desmangles, Leslie Gerald (1977). "African Interpretations of the Christian Cross in Vodun". Sociological Analysis. 38 (1): 13–24.
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  10. ^ a b Dunham, Katherine (1979). "OPEN LETTER TO BLACK THEATERS". The Black Scholar. 10 (1): 3–6.
  11. ^ Anderson, Michelle (1982). "Authentic Voodoo Is Synthetic". The Drama Review. 26 (2): 89–110.
  12. ^ Wittkower, E.D.; Douyon, L.; Bijou, L. (1964). "Spirit Possession in Haitian Vodun Ceremonies". Acta Psychotherapeutica et Psychosomatica. 12 (1): 72–80.
  13. ^ Wilentz, Amy (Winter 1987). "Voodoo in Haiti Today". Grand Street. 6 (2): 105–123.