The practices of African traditional religion manifested as a number of diverse spiritual cultures throughout the Caribbean. As Africans were taken as slaves from their homeland the indigenous healing and spiritual traditions of African religion stepped into the soil of the island of Hispaniola. The surviving spiritual practices of Africa could become seen in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in various forms. In Haiti the religion formed what we know as ‘Vodou’, a term from the Fon people of the region of Dahomey in West Africa that means ‘spirit’. The religion of Vodou focuses on interaction with spirits known as ‘Loa’ that rule over nature and humanity. Worship involves various magico-religious rituals, the creation of sacred shrines and interaction with spirits.
As one looks at the religion of Haitian based Vodou they may see some familiar Masonic aesthetics. The square and compass, the use of the letter ‘G’ and various Masonic tools can be spotted among a number of the rituals and shrines of Vodu. As we look deeper into the culture, we can also see a number of practices and symbols found in Freemasonry.
French rule of the island of Hispaniola established the colony of Saint Domingue from 1659 to 1804 in the area of what we now know as Haiti. Freemasonry was officially established in the colony as two lodges were established in 1749. In 1778 a Provincial Grand Lodge was also established under the direction of the Grand Orient of France.
Slaves were initially prohibited from lodges as they were required to be ‘free born’ however some free people of color were admitted into lodges where many obtained Masonic wisdom. Some traveled to France and became members of lodges. Freed slaves from Saint Domingue were recorded as members of the lodge in Bordeaux France. Upon their return to the island some members would establish lodges based on their familiarity and membership with the Craft.
Historian Sally McKee noted that “Scottish-Rite Freemasonry linked the colony of Saint Domingue and Bordeaux. The masonic lodges established in the French Caribbean were part of a transatlantic network, whose mother lodge was located in Bordeaux.” Stephen Morin, considered by some as the founder of the Scottish Rite established several Scottish Lodges in Saint Domingue as did Martinés de Pasqually, the founder of the esoteric order known as ‘Elus de Cohën’. Pasqually’s order combined angelic operations, ceremonial magic and Scottish Rite Freemasonry as a path to return man to his state before the Adamic fall. Morin was a member of the Bordeaux lodge and in Saint Domingue started a ‘Ecossais’ or ‘Scots Masters’ Lodge in the city of Le Cap Francais.
The impact of Freemasonry on the Vodou culture could be seen in the life of one of Haiti and Vodou’s most recognizable historical figures. Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture the leader of the Haitian Revolution was a former slave and believed by some historians to be a Freemason. However, many base his affiliation with the Craft based upon his use of a possible Masonic based signature he used when signing documents. One of the other leaders in the Haitian revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines who later became Haiti’s ruler under the 1805 constitution was a well-known Freemason and had great influence on local Haitian culture. Masonic knowledge would also become disseminated in the practices of some of Africa’s secret societies that operated in secret on the island as well.
Reflections of the Craft
Some of the subtle reflections from Freemasonry in Vodou are reflected in the use of cultural terms like ‘Grand Master’ a term used to describe God or ‘Grand Met Bondye’ the ‘good God’. Masonic practices including the use of passwords, gestures and handshakes can be seen in rituals and various initiations in the Vodou religion. One example of this can be seen as the priest known as the ‘Houngan’ greets fellow priests with a sacred handshake. This is elaborated on when competing priests meet together. Donald J. Cosentino, professor of English and World Arts and Cultures at UCLA observed that ‘When competing oungans meet at the beginning of ceremonies, they greet each other with elaborate Masonic handshakes”.
The pantheon of spirits in the Vodou religion is composed of a number of diverse spirits known as ‘Loa’. Teachings surrounding the Loa speak of many of the spirits as being Freemasons. The warrior Loa of iron known as Ogou and the Loa of the crossroads known as Legba are frequently referred to as Masons. Ogou is depicted and symbolized by the sword, a military symbol and a tool found in Masonic culture as well. Masonic symbolism abounds in the imagery of Masonic Loa Baron Samedi. Baron Samedi, Baron Kriminel and Baron La Kwa are spirts associated with the graveyard. The Baron wears a familiar top hat much like found in lodge regalia and is often depicted with familiar Masonic symbols of coffins, skeletons and various Masonic tools. Some images of the Barons are depicted wearing Masonic aprons. The Loa Agassu, Linglenso and Agau are also viewed as Masonic Loa.
Vévé are symbols traditionally used to call forth the Loa. Priests (Houngans) and priestesses (Mambos) create sacred diagrams from cornmeal and various powders to invoke the energies of specific spirits. The square and compass is reflected in the Vévé of the Loa Ayizan and Véve of the spirits of the dead known as ‘Ghede’. In Vodou the square and compass also take on the meaning of symbolizing the male and feminine united together. One writer has pointed out that the Vévé for the Loa Ayizan Velekete not only appears very similar to the square and compass with its overlay of the letter ‘a’ and v’ but has a philosophical component that speaks to Masonic concepts as well. Ayizan Velekete is the protector of the temple and ritual purity and acts as the defender of morality. In the Craft the square and compass speaks to ideals of squaring our actions as we reach for purity and morality (Robinson 2013).
The Masonic patron saint of John the Baptist also takes an important role in Haitian Vodou. Legendary Vodou priest and scholar Max Beavior claimed that John the Baptist taught Jesus the secrets of Vodou. His importance is also reflected in a traditional Vodou song. As St. John’s Day is a celebrated holiday in Masonic culture it is also celebrated in Haitian Vodou.
Legrace Benson in the work Nou La, We Here: Remembrance and Power in the Arts of Haitian Vodou speaks of how the Masonic ‘All Seeing Eye’ can be seen in some of the elaborate sequined flags (Drapos) used in Haitian Vodou. Benson claims the image came from Jesuits and Freemasons that came to Haiti. (One particular Vodou priestess I spoke to claims that Freemasonry introduced the Kabballah and the use of sigils to Vodou.) There are some historical accounts that speak of examples of esoteric imagery such as the tetragrammaton and all seeing eye found in the ritual décor of Vodou temples in Haiti.
Masonic tradition is believed to have affected the manner in which some Vodou ceremonies are conducted. Milo Rigaud in his book Secrets of Voodoo states “The older houngan requests the assistance of two other houngans — the oldest he can find-by virtue of the esoteric prescription that holds three masons together form a regular lodge”.
There are secret societies that exist in Haitian Vodou culture such as the Bizango and Sanpwèl societies. Masonic references abound in these cultures with the membership in both societies observing 33 ranks as in Scottish Rite Freemasonry.
Members of these societies utilize a number of forms of coded recognition. Anthropologist Wade Davis notes that many of the societies such as the Bizango society utilize a number of signs and signals upon entering and exiting ritual spaces and in greeting each other. There is an interesting use of symbolic ‘reversal’ in giving and receiving such signs. Ethnologist Andrew Aptar concludes that “Many reversals play in Masonic symbols and even handshakes, suggesting an appropriation of European or Creole signs of power and value through secondary coding.”
The traditional Vodou temple is known as the Houmfort. The main ritual area where most ceremonies occur is known as the Peristyle and much like Masonic lodges has specific pieces of architecture that symbolize various spiritual principles.
Legrace Benson speaks of a Bizango ceremony where the All Seeing Eye of Providence is painted on the central pole (Poto Mitan) in the temple . She also documented the leader of a Sanpwèl society adorning his temple with photographs of himself in Masonic regalia as well as various lodge symbols. She also observed the leader wearing a white Masonic apron while creating a spiritual bath. Benson also observed wooden coffins used by many of the secret societies that are placed by sacred altars. The coffin is a symbol in Freemasonry used to represent death and resurrection.
As a Freemason and a student of African studies I am fascinated by the meeting of these two worlds. I am reminded that both traditions contain elements that are kept as secrets in order to preserve their wisdom. I am reminded that both traditions have survived years of persecution and demonization from those who live in fear and ignorance. Lastly, I am reminded that both traditions have maintained a sacred lineage that has provided community, guidance and fulfillment for thousands of initiates.
Avengers of the New World, Laurent Dubois, Belknap Press, 2004
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren, McPherson, 1983
Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, Robert F. Thompson, Museum for African Art, 1993
Freemasonry and Vodou, Journal of the Vodou, 2013
Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Susan Buck Morss, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009
Institut de la Maison Impériale ď Haïti, http://www.imperialhaiti.fr/the-haitian-empire/freemasonry/
Morin’s Book Plate, Josef Wäges, The Plumbline: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Spring 2017, Volume 24, №1
On African Origin: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou, Andrew Aptar, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, №2 (May, 2002), pp. 233–260
Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodu, Donald J. Cosentino, University of California Museum, 1995
Secrets of Voodoo, Milo Rigaud, City Lights Publishers, 2001
The Exile’s Song: Edmond Dédé and the Unfinished Revolutions of the Atlantic World, Sally McKee, Yale University Press, 2017
The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint Domingue and British Jamaica (The Early Modern Americas), Trevor Burnard, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018
Voodoo in Haiti, Alfred Métraux, Pantheon, 1989