Las 21 Divisiones and Los Misterios
“Voodoo” is still a taboo subject in the DR. Most Dominican will identify Hollywood style voodoo as some pagan religion practiced by Haitians where weird animal sacrifices take place under the cover of darkness and dolls are pushed with pins, placing spells on unsuspecting individuals. Though there are a large number of Dominicans who practice some form of a Dominican version of Vudu, Las 21 Divisiones, the “religion” is still highly controversial, misunderstood and feared. The main religion in the DR is Roman Catholicism and the Church still wields an immense amount of power over the Caribbean nation. Many of the ideas held by Dominicans come from the teachings of the Church and throughout history the Catholic Church has identified Vudu as a something to be feared.
Regardless Vudu is an influential Dominican subculture and religion. But due to historical, racial and cultural pressures Vudu morphed into Las 21 Divisiones and became more acceptable to the Dominicans who practice it. Even so, Las 21 Divisiones, is still looked upon with suspicion by some in the Dominican community. There are several factors involved in suspicion. Denying Africans and African identity is still common in the DR, and “voodoo” is identified as something that African Haitians do. The Dominican Republic can be considered as an example contradictory ethnic and cultural identity. To one degree there is an internal struggle among Dominicans to counter the white European ideals they have been taught, but the fact remains that some think that Vudu is only Haitian or African, while on the other hand some Catholic Dominicans have altars dedicated to Belié Belcán.
Vodou (Vodoun, Voudou, Vudu) is an actual religion and is practiced in Africa, the Caribbean, and various cities in the US and Europe. “Voodoo” is the most common name and spelling of the religion in American and popular culture, but it is viewed as offensive by those who practice the religion. The spelling connotes an image that has been created for Hollywood movies, complete with violence and bizarre rituals. This image has nothing to do with the actual religion. The word “Voodoo” can describe the Creole rituals of New Orleans. For the purpose of this essay the “vudu” spelling will be used as a synonym for Las 21 Divisiones unless otherwise stated.
History of Vodou in the Americas
Vodou was brought to the Americas by enslaved African who were taken to the New World during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The first enslaved Africans were taken to Hispaniola in the early 16th century with the slavery system in full swing by the early 1550s. A majority of the Africans originated from the Central and Western Africa tribes of Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago. Though sentenced to a life of forced labor in inhumane conditions the Africans brought with them their religion and used it as a way to survive life under brutal colonial rule. By the late 17th century the African population on Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) numbered into the millions and the visibility of Vodou began to worry the French, who ruled the western side of the island. So in 1685 French King Louis XIV passed Les Code Noir which prohibited the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, in the French colonies. The Code restricted the activities of freed Africans and Haitians, and defined the conditions of the slavery system in the French colonial empire. The document also specified that all Africans must be baptized Catholics, and white enslavers had to be Roman Catholic, increasing the influence of Catholicism in the New World. The Codes was an extensive document on race and slavery, though it would have a deep impact on the development of Haitian Vodou, and in turn Las 21 Divisiones. Now instead of practicing their religion out in the open Africans and Haitians had to find a way to continue practicing their religion without the suspicion of the white enslavers. This is when the evolution of Vudu begins.
Practitioners would begin process of syncretism by where Vodou was masked behind white Roman Catholic beliefs all the while Vodou was being practiced in the background. A typical example of Vodou syncretism is by where the religion’s deities, or spirits, were masked behind white Catholic saints that possessed similar qualities therefore Belei Belcan became St. Michael, the Archangel, Jan Bakeo became Saint Peter became and Papa Legba became Saint Anthony. White enslavers might have seen enslaved Africans praying to the Virgin Mary but he wouldn’t suspect that they were in fact praying to Erzulie. By hiding their religion behind the acceptable structure of white Catholicism, Vodou presence in the Americas stayed strong, especially in Haiti and through time Vodou would become steeped in Catholic dogma.
By the late 1790s disturbances by freed and enslaved Africans became more and more common and the Haitian Revolutionary movement began to take form. In 1791 a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman, performed by high priest Duty Boukman, was a catalyst of the 1803 fight for freedom and solidified the influence of the religion on the island. In 1804, after Haiti declared its independence, the Catholic Church left the island and wouldn’t return for 56 years. In the interim Vodou’s influence and visibility became stronger and even when the Church returned in the 1860’s they continued a war against the religion, though this was in vain. Through increased migration and a cultural mélange Vodou spread to the eastern part of Hispaniola.
Another central feature of Vudu is the “service.” These are usually held outside, under a roof and around a center pole. A houngan or mambo almost always directs these services. Drums are used to provide music and dancing is essential to the service. Services are fully participatory and the houngan and mambo participate. During a ceremony a master of ceremonies is often present, a hounganikon directs the music and motion while the Hounsi (women only) are serving. These ladies are usually dressed in white. Those in attendance are nearly all participants and most can be possessed by Lwa at any time. During these mountings the Lwa will “take over the persons body and the person is gone. The body is then just a vehicle. There are two versions of Vudu one is know as Rada and the other is Petro. Rada is considered a peaceful version of Vudu while Petro is considered black magic. And though it exists Petro is rarely used.
Differences between Voudou and Las 21 Divisiones
Dominican Vudu is less strict than Haitian Vodou and in Dominican Vudu calling upon the spirits, or Los Misterios, can also occur through reading tarot cards, hand palms, or even shells. Unlike Haitian Vodou, Las Divisiones has no fixed doctrine, or defined temples and ceremonies. The lack of structure of Dominican Vudu is reflected in the music used in Vudu ceremonies. While in Haitian Vodou the spirit that comes down is one that is specifically called through the music, in Dominican Vudu one spirit can comedown even when another one is being called. The flexibility of Dominican Vudu can be noted in that new music is constantly being created. During a Mani, a type of Vudu ceremony, you can hear bachata or merengue being played with no reference to the palos. Interestingly, Palo music is the music of choice during ceremonies and in Haitian voudou it is believed that the spirits respond through this music. It is precisely this adaptability that characterizes Dominican Vudu.
The different groups of Loas in Dominican Vudu can be divided into three rites, better known as the 21 Divisions. There are in total twenty-one groups of Loas, divided into three “major” divisions: the White, Black and Indian divisions. These are some of the Lwas and their Catholic counterparts:
Anaisa Pyé – Saint Anne, Baron Del Cementerio – Saint Elijah, Belié Belcan – Saint Michael, Bakúlu Baká – Saint Philip, Candelina – Our Lady of Candelaria, Candelo Cedife – Saint Charles, Cachita – Our Lady of Charity, Clementina – the Virgen Milagrosa, Centinela – Saint Sebastián, Damballah – Saint Patrick, Ezili Ailá (Alaíla) – Our Lady of High Grace Ezili, Danthó – Saint Barbara Africana, Ezili Kénwa – Saint Martha, Filomena Lubana – Saint Martha, Ghuede Gran Bwa – Saint Jude, Saint Cristopher, Gran Solié – Saint Nicholas, Gran Toro (Toroliza) – Christ of Good hope, Gunguna – Saint Ellen, Jan Bakéo – Saint Peter, Jan Ferro – Saint Marcos Evangelist, Kriminelo (Jan Kriminel) – Saint Sebastián, Papa Legba – Saint Anthony, Marassa – Saints Cosmo and Damian, Metresili – Our Lady of Sorrows, Niño de Atocha – Child of Atocha, Ofelia Balendjo – Our Lady of Mercy, Ogun Balendjo – Saint James, Ogun Fegai – Saint Jorge, Ogun Batala [Obatala] – Saint Martin of Tours, La Señorita – Saint Claire.
The vudu altars can be extremely elaborate or quite simple depending on the person. The altars usually will have pictures of the Lwas in their Catholic renditions as well as beads, drapos or handkerchiefs with the colors pertaining to the Loas, lit candles, beads, scented candles, herbs that are burned and flowers. The altar could also have dolls that represent the Lwa and different types of food or beverages, like rum, juices or cakes that are offered to the Loas. Catholic imagery is common as well as crucifixes, pictures of white saints and Jesus, and bibles.
There are a variety of vudu ceremonies. There is no central figure in vudu and each priest is the ruler of his own house so he execute services as he feels. There is the Baptism which begins when the Papa Boko or Mama Mambo builds a table called a mani decorated with the main Lwas colors. The services are placed in honor of the 21 divisions, drummers will play palo during the whole three days and three nights of the ceremonies. Once baptized there is a celebration honoring the initiate with families and friends. Refresco de Cabeza and Aplazamiento are other types of ceremonies. The Refresco de Cabeza (washing of the head) is a spiritual cleansing used for removing all negative influences elevating the heads spiritually. The Aplazamiento ceremony ceremony is focused on giving the Lwa a stronger foundation. Ceremonies take two or three days to prepare as foods are cooked and altars are set up. During the services Catholic prayers are recited and songs are played. During the services Palo music or other musics are played and all the Lwas are saluted. Practitioners may dance and it is during this time that a mounting may occur.
The Veve are religious symbols for the Lwas and each lwa has a particular symbol. The symbols are drawn on the floor during a service in order to invoke that particular lwa. Some say that the Veve were also part of previous Taino culture on Hispaniola.
Las Divisiones is not a pagan satanic religion where zombies walk around and a person’s soul can be taken at a moment’s notice. Unbeknownst to many, vudu practitioners don’t drink alcohol or consume drugs because it can impede their connection to the spirits and the most practitioners are devout Catholics at their core. Although the country is overwhelmingly Catholic, a majority of Dominicans do embrace some of the features of Vudu while still identifying themselves as exclusively Catholics. Vudu practitioners will admit to their vudu practices, but admit that vudu doesn’t contradict their Catholic beliefs it instead works hand in hand with it. Dominicans often reject the label Vudu considering it “a Haitian thing,” and so a similar religion under a different name, Las 21 Divisiones and Los Misterios, was born. In recent decades vudu has become slightly more acceptable, but it will take more time before the image of the zombies and “voodoo” priest is replaced.
Dominican Vudu (Las 21 Divisiones)
Las 21 Divisiones or Dominican Vudu, maintains many of the same characteristics of Haitian Vodou, with only a few slight variations. Contrary to popular belief, like Haitian Vodou, Dominican Vudu practitioners believe in one main God, the Creator, Papa Bon Dyé (the good God). In Haiti “God” goes by Gran Met (the Great Master). There are three important categories of spiritual beings. There are the Lwa or Loas and these are the various spirits of the major forces of the universe. The Lwa interact with the people of earth and during ceremonies they “mount” or “posses” a practitioner’s body. Another part of the religion is the dichotomy of good vs. evil and the recognition of dead family members which must be recognized time and again.
An important part of Vudu is healing people and healers can heal with herbs and faith using the help of the Lwa. Interestingly enough there is a certain equality in Vudu. High Priests can be men (houngan) and women (mambo). As part of their functions priests heal, perform ceremonies, hold initiations for new priests (tesses) (kanzo service and taking the ason) and in some cases they claim to tell the future, read dreams, can cast spells and create protections.
Refresco de Cabeza
This ceremony is performed to accomplish exactly what its name implies: refresh and wash the head. This ceremony gives the person’s head clarity, clarifying the Lwa of the Head and the other Misterios that may walk with him or her. It elevates the powers of the Lwa of that head, making the person’s head a place that is more frequented by possession by the Misterios and making those possessions less violent.
In this ceremony, the Papa Boko or Mama Mambo has prepared the Badji for the refresco of the new initiate. They have properly serviced it and all the proper items are present. The Lwa will be invoked. From then, the recipient will then kneel in front of the altar. The person is cleansed in a special way with various items from the altar. The person’s fulas are present in order to give them more “fuerza” (power). Usually they number seven, and these are very important in Dominican Vodou.
Then the Lwa will mount the Papa Boko and from that point on will start to invoke the ruler of the recipient’s head. Many times the recipient will become possessed at this point. Then the Lwa will proceed to cleanse the individual and elevate all the services unto the recipients head. The Misterio will usually do this while making secret invocations and prayers.
At times, different Lwa may decide to show up and give their puntos. A punto is a point, and will give more power to that individual. The person will then be kneeling over a large basin. Their head will be washed as the Lwa says prayers for the individual.
A secret bath is made. This is given to the new initiate to take the morning after the ceremony. The person will have a white fula tied to their head for a number of days, depending on that person’s Lwas. Usually it can be from 3 to 7 days. The participant takes a portion of the offerings for each Misterio home. At home they will continue to carry out a ritual with these until their restriction time is over.