The Lwas of Vodou

Lavi M Nan Men Bondye o Sen

In Voodoo in Haiti, Alfred Métraux writes:

The word 'God' is always on the lips of the Haitians but it would be unwise to conclude that they feared Him or even gave Him much thought. 'Le Bon Dieu' is a Deus otiosus, if He is anything. He conjures up no precise image and He is too far away for there to be much point in addressing Him. 'He's a nice easy-going papa who wouldn't dream of getting angry or frightening people. With Him it will be easy to come to some arrangement when you have to give an account of your life. There's no point therefore in serving Him too seriously.' (Mgr Robert.)

In Voodoo the idea of God seems to get mixed up with the idea of a vague and impersonal power, superior to that of the loa. It would seem to be something like what we understand, in present-day usage, by the word 'fate' or 'nature'. Common illnesses, too usual to be the work of bad spirits or sorcerers, and which we would call 'natural', in Haiti are called 'illnesses of God'. Meteorological phenomena and cataclysms which occur without seeming to be the work of loa, are also attributed to the 'Good God'. Whenever a man of the people talks of some plan for the future, no matter how simple, he adds prudently 'Si Dieu vlé' (God willing), less to entrust the matter to God's will, than to exercize bad luck. [Métraux 1959:83-84]

Métraux's mention of Deus otiosus is a term often applied to African notions of God: that God is remote, withdrawn and uninvolved. For example, here's a brief abstract about some writings about Deus otiosus.

It's not clear to me whether or not Métraux is taking some scholarship about African religions and trying to apply it to Haitian Vodou, or if he is relying only on his personal research conclusions. If it's the former, that's a bit suspect, although there are times when that kind of application can be revealing (i'll mention an example in a minute). On the other hand, sometimes it's just mistaken.

Métraux has been described as a man who never stopped asking people what things mean. I'd like to take that to mean that he really discussed this idea of the Deus Otiosus with several people in Haiti, and asked their opinions about it.

Shannon Turlington, in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo, says much the same thing:

When someone comes down with a common, natural disease, they are said to have an "illness of Bondye" rather than a sickness caused by angry spirits or black magic. Weather and natural disasters that can't be attributed to the anger of the spirits are the works of Bondye. God's will can be seen in everything that is greater than us, everything we can't control or even really understand, but must instead accept and adapt to.


Bondye is too great to become directly involved in the lives of his creations. Unlike the spirits, who have personal relationships with people, Bondye is remote and out of reach. Pleading with him or giving him offerings won't change his will.

Therefore, practitioners of Vodou don't see much point in serving him directly. No rituals are held in his honor, no sacrifices are made to him, and he never possesses anyone. Devotees of Vodou think of Bondye as an easygoing father figure who watches over them but never gets angry with them. He has delegated the task of dealing with the world to the spirits, supernatural beings who are inferior to hime.

That doesn't mean that the practitioners of Vodou forget about Bondye altogether. On the contrary, he is constantly in their thoughts. When talking of plans for the future, they always add, "Si Dieu vlé" (God willing). In this way, they acknowledge that Bondye's will is paramount and cannot be avoided. [Turlington 2002:70-71]

Turlington's words are so clearly restatements of Métraux that I find myself asking if she had any first-hand experience with Haitians.

And this is part of what I think makes the study of Vodou so difficult unless you have real teachers. Material from just a few sources gets repeated again and again (in often near-identical words).

Laënnec Hurbon says, simply:

Both nearby and far away, the Great Master [...] represents fate as well as providence and exercises absolute control over all creation.

Leah Gordon's Book of Vodou says:

Adherents of Vodou acknowledge one superior god, known as Bon Dieu or Bondyé, who is beyond the reach of mere mortals and communicates through a pantheon of spirits, who act as divine messengers.

Maya Deren's comments on the topic include:

Yet it was the African tradition which, in a sense, had prepared this serviteur to acknowledge God as "le gran' maître". In the South Rhodesian myth of origin there is a first god, called Maori, who created the first man, Mwuetsi, and his two wives, Massassi (who bore the entire vegetable kingdom of the earth) and Morongo (who brought forth animals and men). The Ewe-speaking people of Dahomey likewise have a legend of a first diety, Nanan-bouclou, who was both male and female, and who created the twin children Mawu-Lisa, from whom sprang all the deities. Throughout Africa this first deity, the source of the universe, was considered too greatly elevated to be concerned with the petty affairs of human beings, and consequently was rarely worshipped. [Deren

Interestingly, Deren suggests that in Haiti God is not quite as remote as in Africa. She says:

When Christianity taught that such a primal figure was concerned with human affairs, and was to be personally and intimately addressed, this was accepted as a welcome modification of the African tradition.

But she later goes on to say:

According to the Haitian pesant, Agaou (the loa of thunder) says, "If God is willing." [Deren 53:54-57]

It almost starts to seem like there are really only two or three anecdotes about the Haitian notion of God, and they are repeated over and over again by almost every author who comes near the subject.

Karen McCarthy Brown, in Mama Lola, repeats this information, but at least we get the sense that it has been vetted by Mambo Alourdes:

Haitians, like their African forebears, operate from understandings of the divine and the virtuous that are markedly different from those of mainstream Catholicism. Bondye does not get involved in the personal, day-to-day affairs of human beings. "He is too busy," Alourdes told me. Instead, it is the spirits and the ancestors -- netiher properly referred to as gods -- who handle the day-to-day problems and who, if necessary, mediate between the living and God. [Brown 91:6]


Bondye (God) is singular and supreme in Haitian Vodou. He is a deity with roots in the Christian god as well as in the so-called high gods of West Africa. Yet in the Haitian view of things, Bondye, like his African models, rarely gets involved with individual human lives. Attention to the everyday drama of life is the work of his "angels," the Vodou spirits. [Brown 91:111]

I feel pretty confident in Brown's scholarship. I think that if she reports that God isn't involved in the day-to-day affairs, then I doubt that she's just parroting Métraux.

Recalling what Deren said, a footnote in Brown's book seems extremely interesting. She remarks on a piece of langay (or langaj, an Arcane spiritual language used in Vodou) that Alourdes uses -- "Lisa dole zo":

Dahomean religion contains an important androgynous spirit called Mawu-Lisa. This figure, who is sometimes spoken of as two separate entities, Mawu (a female) and Lisa (a male), is the creator of the world, the so-called high god. In Haiti, Bondye has taken over the role of high god, and Mawu-Lisa has been largely forgotten. The enigmatic reference to Lisa in this line of langay ("Lisa gives bones") seems to be the only instance in which Alourdes's community retains even a shard of memory of the Dahomean creator spirit.

And Ross Heaven, himself an initiated Houngan, writes:

Bondye is involved only peripherally in the affairs of humankind since She or He is also responsible for all life and for reality in all its forms. The task of holding together the very fabric of the universe means that Bondye cannot be available to every human petition and will intervene directly in world affairs only in the most extreme circumstances.

So having established that this is what all the writers say about Bondye, I'm forced to report that my manman kanzo pretty much thinks that they have no idea what they're talking about.

Here's the thing, though. I'm not convinced that she's right. Having listened to a large number of things that she's said, I don't really get the impression that she's read any of these things firsthand; she's objecting to her perception of the claim, rather than the original claim itself. I mean, in posts to alt.religion.orisha, she doesn't even seem to be very clear about who said it.

Also, in one such post, one of things she says to "prove" that the whole "remote God" story is a fallacy is that Haitians almost never say anything about the future without qualifying it with "Si Bondye vle". Which is kind of amusing given what I've written above. Her debunking seems to be based on the assertion that since God is mentioned a lot, God must therefore be immediate and accessible. But the assertion doesn't seem to take into consideration Métraux claim that the word "God" is always on the lips of Haitians.

This is a point of Haitian theology that's very interesting to me, and so I feel moved to look deeper at the topic than my manman would seem to favour.

As someone who didn't grow up in Haiti, I suspect that I'm never really going to understand the notion of Bondye as fully as a native Haitian. If Métraux is reporting accurately, then what does he mean by "vague and impersonal power"?

I'm not sure, completely. But there are a few things that seem salient to me.

First is the way that God is referred to in various songs. I'm aware of multiple songs that use the phrase "Lavi m nan men bondye o sen" (my life is in the hands of God, oh saints). This phrase is used in various parts of the Priye Ginen. For example, there's a whole callback sequence where the person leading the Priye identifies various lwa, as the rest of the congregation play back these three sentences:

Sen djo e.
Sen djo di ko agwe.
Lavi m nan men Bondye o sen

What strikes me as interesting about this phrase is its implication of servitude. And not servitude in the way that one "serves the spirits". One of the things I was taught about serving the spirits is that if the spirits don't work on your behalf, you stop feeding them. One's relationship with the spirits is an exchange system. You give the spirits what they want and the spirits should give you what you want. And if it doesn't work that way, then you should kick those spirits out.

But saying, "my life is in God's hands" always suggested to me a very different relationship with God. Definitely not a relationship between equals.

I have not observed people sacrificing animals for God. I have not seen people leave food for God. People do these things for the lwa, because the lwa can be bartered with. You can ask the lwa to work on your behalf. But God. Well... your life is in God's hands, and what you hope to come about will only come about si bondye vle (if God is willing).

Another difference is that the ways in which Christians interact with God really aren't relevant in Vodou. One does not, for example, pray for forgiveness. One does not beg God for the strength to deal with difficult things.So, while God is clearly "out there", one doesn't really negotiate with Him the way one negotiates with the lwa. God does what He wills but the lwa should work on your behalf.

And I think it is in that sense that Métraux describes Bondye as "impersonal".


Copyright © 2004 by B.C. Holmes.  Last updated May 16th, 2004.

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