Haitian Vodou and Animal Sacrifice
Animal sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Haitian Vodou. Animal sacrifice is not required at every Vodou ceremony. In fact,contrary to the popular myths and misinformation about Vodou, animals, though important, are not the central focus of most ceremonies. Some ceremonies and rituals require animals to be sacrificed, though the large majority do not.
Animals are sacred in most African Traditional Religions, and are used as offerings to the Lwa and ancestors in healings, initiations, cleansing ceremonies, in thanksgiving for a favor granted, as payment to a promise made to a Lwa and other Vodou related rituals. The methods in which animal are sacrificed are no more spectacular than the slaughtering of farm anmials by a butcher, in fact and in many cases, in a Vodou context the animal is sacrificed more humanely.
Animal offerings are a sacred, humane, and essential religious practice that has been in practice in many cultures all over the world for thousands of years, even up to present times. Many religions still practice animal sacrifice today. (ie: Jews, Muslims, etc) And, if you eat meat regularly, you are in a way partaking of regular animal sacrifice, whether or not the animal was killed by a butcher or by yourself, the animal’s life has been taken.
While many ceremonies and rituals can be done without animal sacrifice, in some it is required. For example, during an initiation into Haitian Vodou, animal sacrifices are made by the initiator during certain ceremonies on behalf of the initiate. Without this ceremony, the initiation is incomplete and invalid.
However, in other instances, magical work, for example, animal sacrifice may or may not be necessary depending on the Lwa invoked and the work being done. Either way it is up to the discretion of the Houngan/Mambo and the client doing the magical work.
At large Fetes/ceremonies, animal sacrifice is more common. The reason being that at many of these larger dances, anywhere from fifty to several hundred people will be present. And according to Vodou tradition, the Houngan or Mambo is responsible for feeding them a sacred meal. Thus in these instances, animal sacrifice often makes more sense (killing a large bull will often be able to feed a very large congregation) rather than buying preslaughtered animal meat. In traditional/rural Haitian culture, it is still very common to kill one’s own food before eating it, so it is easy to see where animal sacrifice is not as big an issue amongst the culture.
During ceremony which precedes a sacrifice, the Houngan/Mambo as well as the initiates pray over the animal and thank it for giving up it’s life force. The animal is often given a bath with herbs and perfume, and sometimes may be “dressed”. In these instances, the animal (usually larger sacrificial animals, ie cows, bulls, goats) will be covered in cloths and/or mushwa and be led in a procession by the entire Vodou Sosyete and it’s drummers.
Once the animal is sacrificed, the meat is almost always cooked and eaten by the congregation. No parts of the animal is wasted, some of it being offered to the Lwa, hides/skins being used for different ritual objects or for drums, etc. And in the rare instances, in which the animal is not eaten, it is often given away as Charity to someone who can benefit/eat it.