What Is Voodoo?
Voodoo, or Vodum, meaning “spirit”, is an African name given to rites practiced in poverty stricken rural areas of Haiti. It was developed by African slaves brought to the island by the French during the late 17th Century and has now spread to Cuba, Jamaica and Brazil. The word “voodoo” comes from the West African word “vodun,” meaning spirit. This Afro-Caribbean religion mixed practices from many African ethnics groups such as the Fon, the Nago, the Ibos, Dahomeans, Congos, Senegalese, Haussars, Caplaous, Mondungues, Mandinge, Angolese, Libyans, Ethiopians, and the Malgaches.
Despite Voodoo’s noble status, it has been typically characterized as barbaric, primitive, sexually licentious practice based on superstition and spectacle. Much of this image however, is due to a concerted effort by Europeans, who have a massive fear of anything African, to suppress and distort a legitimate and unique religion that flourished among their enslaved Africans. When slavers brought these peoples across the ocean to the Americas, the African’s brought their religion with them.
However, since slavery included stripping the slaves of their language, culture, and heritage, this religion had to take some different forms. It had to be practiced in secret, since in some places it was punishable by death, and it had to adapt to the loss of their African languages. In order to survive, Voodoo also adopted many elements of Christianity.
When the French who were the colonizers of Haiti, realized that the religion of the Africans was a threat to the colonial system, they prohibited all African religion practices and severely punished the practitioners of Voodoo with imprisonment, lashings and hangings. This religious struggle continued for three centuries, but none of the punishments could extinguish the faith of the Africans.
The strength that the Africans in Haiti gained from their religion was so strong and powerful, that they were able to survive the cruel persecution of the French rulers against Voodoo. It was in the midst of this struggle that the revolution was conspired. The Voodoo priests consulted their oracle and learned how the political battle would have to be fought in order for them to be victorious.
The revolution exploded in 1791 with a Petr— ritual and continued until 1804 when the Haitians finally won independence. Today the system of Voodoo reflects its history. We can see the African ethnic mixture in the names of different rites and in the pantheon of Gods or Loas, which is composed of deities from all parts of Africa.
Possessing no doctrine, Voodoo is wonderfully elastic and, as any primitive religion demands, is full of myths and magic. Since most Voodoists are also Roman Catholics, they have introduced many of the church’s beliefs into their religion. For instance, they have enthusiastically adopted many saints. Ritual dances occupy an important part of their lives and usually take place in the presence of a priest or priestess. These dances are rhythmic and are accompanied by drums. Back and forth the dancers shuffle, shoulders shaking and eyes rolling as they chant incomprehensible words.
They can become quite unaware of the outside world and, in this state, have often been known to froth at the mouth. When a baby is “baptized”, it is thrown through flames to become fortified against danger. Many Voodoo priests exploit the beliefs and superstitions of their people for their own gain and power. This is bound to happen in any primitive religion, but the situation is beginning to improve as education spreads.
During Voodoo ceremonies these Loa can possess the bodies of the ceremony participants. Loa appear by “possessing” the faithful, who in turn become the Loa, relaying advice, warnings and desires. Voodoo is an animist faith. That is, objects and natural phenomena are believed to possess holy significance, to possess a soul. Thus the Loa Agwe is the divine presence behind the hurricane.The serpent figures heavily in the Voodoo faith.
The word Voodoo has been translated as “the snake under whose auspices gather all who share the faith”. The high priest and/or priestess of the faith (often called Papa or Maman) are the vehicles for the expression of the serpent’s power. The supreme deity is Bon Dieu. There are hundreds of spirits called Loa who control nature, health, wealth and happiness of mortals. The Loa form a pantheon of deities that include Damballah, Ezili, Ogu, Agwe, Legba and others.
Voodoo is a practical religion, playing an important role in the family and the community. One’s ancestors, for instance, are believed to be a part of the world of the spirits, of the Loas, and this is one way that Voodoo serves to root its participants in their own history and tradition. Another practical aspect of Voodoo ceremonies is that participants often come before the priest or priestess to seek advice, spiritual guidance, or help with their problems.
The priest or priestess then, through divine aid, offer help such as healing through the use of herbs or medicines (using knowledge that has been passed down within the religion itself), or healing through faith itself as is common in other religions. Voodoo teaches a respect for the natural world.
Unfortunately, the public’s perception of voodoo rites and rituals seems often to point to the evil or malicious side of things. There are healing spells, nature spells, love spells, purification spells, and joyous celebration spells. Spirits may be invoked to bring harmony and peace, birth and rebirth, increased abundance of luck, material happiness, renewed health.The fact is, for those who believe it, voodoo is powerful. It is also empowering to the person who practices it.
Voodoo survives as a legitimate religion in a number of areas of the world, Brazil where it is called “Candomblé” and the English speaking Caribbean where it is called “Obeah”. The Ewe people of southern Togo and southeastern Ghana — two countries in West Africa — are devout believers. In most of the United States however, white slavers were successful in stripping slaves of their Voodoo traditions and beliefs. Thus Voodoo is, for most African Americans, yet another part of their heritage that they can only try to re-discover.