It's common for people familiar with Haiti to joke that 90 percent of the country's inhabitants are practicing Catholics, 10 percent practice a Protestant faith and 100 percent practice voodoo.
But the truth is that "voodoo is a very important part of Haitian life. Americans often just dismiss it as superstition or witchcraft," said University of Kentucky history professor Jeremy Popkin, who teaches a class called "Haiti in the Modern World." "It is a religion with deep roots in the African beliefs that were brought by slaves" to the Caribbean nation.
Popkin's class, which includes a section on the religion, grew out of interest in the country that followed the devastating earthquake in January. Popkin, who wrote a book about the 13-year-long Haitian revolution, said his class was formed in response to a talk about the country held on campus after the earthquake.
"The response (to the talk) was so overwhelming we knew we needed to do something to respond," he said.
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Explaining the religion to Americans can be difficult because it is so unlike more mainstream faiths.
"It's not an organized religion. It doesn't have the kind of institutional structure" that Americans are used to, he said. "There are no bishops. There are no church councils. There is no book of voodoo."
(Scholars prefer the spelling vodou, Popkin said, because it is closer to the Haitian Creole pronunciation and to distance it from pop-culture references.)
Voodoo also has a history of being veiled in secrecy. "It was a religion of the slaves at a time when they had to hide the practice without the masters catching on," Popkin said.
There is a movement to create a centralized way to share information about voodoo. There is now a federation of voodoo practitioners in Haiti. But efforts to alter what for hundreds of years has been a religion passed down as an oral tradition have encountered resistance, said independent voodoo scholar Leslie Brice, who spoke at UK earlier this fall.
Some of the resistance is because people fear the religion will be mocked by those who don't really understand it, Brice said. Voodoo is often portrayed in popular culture, especially movies, as a singularly dark force, said Brice, who is studying to be a voodoo priestess.
But, she said, it really is a religion centered on healing. When slaves were first brought to Haiti they came with "nothing except for what was in their minds and hearts," she said. The religious traditions they brought with them were crucial to their survival, she said.
Because slaves came from all over Africa, voodoo doesn't come from a single African tradition but several. Plus, over time, voodoo adopted some of the traditions of other religions, especially Catholicism. Slaves were forced to practice Catholicism by their masters, so some of those rituals and symbols became central to the practice of voodoo.
In fact, she said, the altars that are kept in the homes of many voodoo worshipers would "look very familiar to Catholics" and sometimes feature Catholic saints.
In addition to involving ancestor worship, the voodoo practitioner creates important relationships with spirits.
"Voodoo believes in one god," she said, "but they believe that this god is too remote and too far away from human life." So instead of seeking help from god directly, spirits, who act as intermediaries, are the key points of contact.
These spirits, known as lwa, have various characteristics, Brice said. Which lwa are right for a specific person would be revealed through ceremony.
"There is a lot of room for how people practice and communicate" with the lwa, Brice said. On an individual basis people might create personal altars and contact the spirits by making offerings, such as the pouring of libations or meditation.
There are no voodoo churches; worshipers congregate in "houses."
Details of rituals and the service of spirits might vary from house to house, she said.
There are stronger spirits that believers invoke that are supposed to have great powers, Brice said. Some houses don't work with the strong spirits, she said. But "it's not a question of good and evil. It's about energy and how it is used."
Particular objects are also an important part of communicating with the lwa, said Brice, who is also an art historian. She was first drawn to the religion because of the vibrant nature of the religious objects used in ceremonies.
"Voodoo really makes artists out of the practitioner," she said.
A particular kind of rattle, for example, might be used to summon a specific lwa. The objects, she said, are much like the relics associated with some Catholic saints. Each lwa is associated with a particular object.
To practice voodoo, people might seek out a priest or priestess for personal healing or help with a specific problem.
Groups, or houses, would gather together to celebrate special days dedicated to the lwa. In those gatherings, she said, everyone would wear white, and there would be drumming and singing.
"It is a matter of raising the energy," she said. "When the energy reaches an appropriate point, the spirits come."
The spirits can inhabit people, she said. For example, a male spirit might inhabit a priestess who would then speak in a deep male voice.
The music, she said, is crucial. "It provides an incredible sense of togetherness and celebration."
In the end, she said, voodoo is a complex amalgamation of unique beliefs that has evolved over several hundred years. As the number of Haitian immigrants in the United States grows, she said, there are several cities, such as New York and Miami, that have large populations of voodoo practitioners.
But while Brice has found solace with the religion, she said Americans are not likely to flock to voodoo because it is so different from more mainstream religions.
"I don't think we are going to have a mass convergence any time soon," she said.