Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. In the case of Haitian Vodou, Vodou blends two or more religious beliefs into one system, therefore it can be characterized has syncretism. Vodou is a syncretic system derived from deeply rooted African beliefs and colonial French Catholicism.
As a reaction to being torn violently from their roots, the slaves tried to resume their cultural and religious traditions.Ancestral spirits were invoked and celebrated in secret, far from the master’s eyes. The worship of saints and the Catholic sacraments served as a screen and a support for African beliefs. The creation of a coherent belief system was extremely important in the development of a feeling of unity among the slaves which would provide them with a sense of self and community. The process of syncretization among the African religions helps to explain why Vodou found it relatively easy to accept and integrate parts of Christian religious belief and practice into the local religious activity.Resistance to conversion was met with terrible violence, so Africans already saddled with the horror of being a slave would also suffer extra depreciations because they wished to celebrate their native religion. A solution fell into place though, and this solution was nearly identical all across the Americas. The Africans would pretend to convert to Catholicism, and secretly continue their religious traditions under the guise of Christian worship. Catholic symbols, like the Eucharist and the Saints, came to have double meanings.Initially this integration was purely functional, providing a cover of legitimacy for religions that were severely proscribed. Naturally, most Africans did not want to leave behind their old traditions. But after a few generations a real syncretism became part of the duality of beliefs of the slaves themselves, who soon found it possible to accommodate both religious systems. One way in which one can see clearly an example of syncretism is that Vodou recognizes a supreme deity and so does Catholicism.However, this god does not interact directly with humanity. Humans must rely on lesser celestial beings known as laws; and in Roman Catholicism humans must rely on lesser celestial beings known as angels and saints. These creatures might appear as gods, though they are more like helpers and messengers for the supreme creator. It was a simple matter of marrying the imagery of lwas with saints and angels. Then it was simple to go to Church and pray to St. Patrick to invoke Damballah, or pray to St. Anthony to invoke Legba.There was also no need to change the structure of the supreme deity. Vodou does not reject the idea that the Christian god is any different than their supreme deity. How did Haitian Vodou come to this point? Vodou’s evolution is marked by four major developments. The first one is the integration of African beliefs and practices around the dominant Fon religion. The second was the classification of gods and emergence of new ones. The third one was the synthesis of Catholic elements; and finally the fourth one was appropriating Amerindian religious symbols.The reason that the Fon beliefs became the dominant ones was for the simple fact that the Dahomean culture was the most populous. Vodou gained the majority of its deities from the Fon received from other African religions are the terms for gods (laws), mambos, the Congo word for priestess, and special deities lie Ogun, which absorbs the place of Gu in Dahomey. The classification for gods/laws changed over the time of Vodou’s development. At first it was classified according to African ethnic origins: Rada, Kongo, Nago, and Ibo.Later, with the emergence of new deities in Haiti two major categories of deities emerged: Rada and Petwo deities. The Rada deities originate from Africa while the Petwo deities originated in Haiti, but are still believed to visit from Africa (nan ginen). Synthesis of the Catholic faith with Vodou began with the Code Noir in 1685. This code outlawed all religions except for Catholicism. According to the Code Noir, slaves must be baptized. It stated that each slave’s acceptance into the church must be preceded by a period of religious instruction in the Catholic faith.This led to restrictions for the slaves. Some of these restrictions included slaves not being able to leave the plantation, prohibit slaves from night gathering, rituals, dances, etc. , and the sale of goats were prohibited. Three theories could explain what happened. The first one simply states that both fused together to make one. The second theory, symbiosis, explains that African elements and Catholic elements existed side by side as part of a mosaic, not having true fusion.The third theory, merely draped over the African dissimulation, states that Catholic elements of ritual were merely draped over the African ones in efforts to conceal traditional religious practices in an environment that was hostile to their survival. The last theory is what I think explains this scenario the best. Vodou is more closely related to African traditions than the Catholic faith; Vodou just used the Catholic faith as a disguise.I believe if the Catholic faith was not there, it Vodou could have still emerged under Islam or Judaism, but it would have been much harder since the two latter religions are not as universal as Catholicism. The final step in the development of Vodou is the synthesis of Amerindian religions. Symbols for Vodou originated here and not in Africa. Things like the asson, the sacred rattle of the priests, and the objects used in rituals. One can conclude that Vodou started as a religion from mainly three other religions, but now Vodou has evolved into a new and unique religion.