First: Vodou—or any religion—cannot be learned from a book. A living religion like vodou can only be learned in person from a reputable, lineaged teacher-priest—not online, not in the pages of any book. Reading books on vodou is like smelling coffee from three blocks away—you might get a whiff and maybe you’ll recognize the scent, but you have no idea what it will taste like nor how rich it will be on your tongue until you have the cup in your hands. Vodou is the same same way—you can read all you want, but until you are in the literal room with your teacher-priest and the Lwa, the taste will escape you. That taste, by the way, will blow your mind—it will be like nothing that is contained on any pages, nothing like you’ve imagined, and nothing like anyone has ever been able to explain to you.
Second: HOWEVER, reading about religion and the culture a religion comes from should be considered a fundamental skill worth developing. While a book will never let you experience vodou, nor will it teach you the intricacies of the religious practice, give you an license for ritual work, or give you any insight into any Lwa who may move with you, it can give you a bit of context to work with.
Third: There is a lot of bullshit written about vodou and a lot of books composed of utter crap, whether it be things that are made up whole cloth, things that have been twisted in such a way that the author stands to benefit, conflates vodou with things that it very much is not, or is some sort of undecipherable nonsense that is better off as toilet paper. Listed here are books that I have for the most part read, with a few that I have been told to read so many damn times but that I have yet to get a copy of. I’m happy to field questions about books and other writings as best as I am able, if you have a question about a particular book or article.
Here we go..
Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown By far one of my favorite books about vodou and the first of it’s kind—an ethnographic study of the religion done by an anthropologist who eventually initiated. It’s a wonderful book, truly, and I love it a lot. Reading it feels like being in my Manmi’s house—it is incredibly familiar and it takes several readings to get it all. It contains a lot of insider information that may be hard to grasp or understand the importance of if you haven’t been involved in vodou, but it is glorious. There are some quibbles in the vodou community about some of the conclusions Brown draws, but they don’t affect the reading of the text. Mama Lola is still alive and well in Brooklyn. Pick up the 2011 re-issue for the really nice introduction by Claudine Michel.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren. Another of my favorites. Deren originally went to Haiti to record and detail Haitian dance—she was a film maker and dancer who was solely interested in Haitian folk dancing, and then the Lwa showed up for her. This was the first book really published on vodou at all that wasn’t all in French and marketed outside of the United States or completely sensationalistic. It is fantastically detailed and full of observations of both vodou and Haitian culture as seen by an outsider. Joseph Campbell was very excited about this book and was involved in it coming to print, which is a bit shitty—he really, REALLY wanted vodou and Deren’s narrative to fit his narratives about mythology and global hero cycles. This meant some of Deren’s materials were edited or altered somewhat. She mostly stuck to her guns, but some stuff was edited and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of her original manuscript anywhere. There is a big archive of her correspondence with Campbell and other things at Boston University, which is fascinating to view.
Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou edited by Donald Cosentino. This is a beautiful, glorious book that I cannot wait to own. It details a lot about Haitian art and culture, which is a primary vehicle for both communication about vodou and learning about Haitian culture. It’s usually quite expensive, but a lot of libraries have it available at least through interlibrary loan.
There’s also other book-type things that are important in vodou, particularly for outsiders.
If you want any sort of understanding of vodou beyond what you can read in any of these books, you must, must, MUST learn Kreyol. Kreyol is vital to vodou—any respectable sosyete conducts all their services in Kreyol, for reasons beyond Haitians speaking Kreyol. A lot of understanding of vodou happens in double-speak—a sentence in Kreyol may mean one thing to someone who is an outsider or doesn’t have a lot of experience with vodou, but to a practitioner means something wholly different and communicate quite a bit about practice, lineage, and one’s personal Lwa.
To that end, the Pimsleur system is a great beginner resource and, from there, the Pawol Lakay set works really well. Being able to at least casually converse in Kreyol means you will understand quite a bit of what is going on around you should you go to a service, speak with the Lwa yourself [They by and large only speak Kreyol, French, or langaj/spirit language when They come down, and sometimes They do not want to wait for you to grab someone to translate for you]. Plus, if you’re not Haitian, it’s a good first impression.
History is part of vodou, and vodou is part of history. The two are inseparable and each feeds each other. Every vodou service embodies this—the various prayers involve a subtle re-telling of how each Haitian came to be alive today through use of a variety of languages—Old French, modern French, Kreyol, and langaj—and tools, like whips and swords. To understand why things are how they are, it is important to have at least a grasp on where Haiti has been and where Haiti is now. Here are a few decent books on history and politics:
Brooklyn, NY: 2011- An 8-year old boy living in a close-knit Jewish community disappeared on his way home from day camp. He had asked his parents to allow him to make the 7-block walk alone, and they relented because the Orthodox neighborhood they lived in was seen as relatively quiet and safe. Tragically, the young boy never made it home.
Somewhere along his trek home, Kletzky became lost. He stopped at a nearby store to ask for directions. He unwittingly delivered himself into the clutches of 35-year old Levi Aron. Lacking any known motive for his actions, Aron abducted the boy and drugged him with an assortment of medications (including a muscle relaxer and pain killers). As large groups of people began to search for the missing Kletzky, Aron strangled and dismembered him. Parts of the child were found in Aron’s freezer, a suitcase, and a nearby dumpster. Police were led to Aron after seeing him and the boy on local video surveillance.
Kletzky’s killer was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.