What is it? Here's a couple good articles that offer a general overview:
What is Voodoo?
What is Voodoo? Making Sense of Animal Sacrifice, the Undead and Possession
What is Voodoo?
What is Voodoo? Making Sense of Animal Sacrifice, the Undead and Possession
04/19I wrote the following in response to a friend who asked me to write it. I am no expert on the Vodou Religion, but I have been studying it for a few years. I think it's a good introduction.
Vodou (also known as Vodun, Voodoo, Vodoun) is the name of a spiritual path that has its roots in Africa. No one knows its meaning, but some say it means “The Spirits,” or “The Invisibles,” “The Deities,” or “The Mysteries.”
In western Africa, the roots of Vodou came from ancestral traditions of many tribes, including the Fon, the Ewe, and the Congo. Beginning in the 16th Century, when these people were captured and forcibly taken to the lands of the Americas as slaves, they had nothing but their tribal traditions. Many of these traditions were practiced in secret, because, as slaves, they would be punished or even killed if caught. These traditions included drumming, dances, songs, and practices of healing and magic-making, all passed down by word-of-mouth and simple imitation. Sacred theater was included, where the ancestral spirits actually came into the dancing bodies of the celebrants and gave healing and wisdom to the others, or simply “performed” for/with others in a theatrical/archetypal way. These “performances” were interactive and provided needed emotional release for people living in hellish conditions!
When they got to America, the slaves were forcibly converted into the Christian religion. In the French colony of St. Domingue, and in the Spanish colonies, they were forcibly baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. They were told of the Catholic Saints and since they couldn’t read or write, they were shown pictures. In these pictures, they saw many of their ancestral spirits (called “Loas” or “Lwas”). For instance, when they were shown pictures of St. Patrick, they saw the snakes in the picture and sycretized St. Patrick with the Great Father Snake Creator God, Damballah. When they saw a picture of St. James the Greater, they syncretized St. James with the Great Warrior God who learned to work with iron, Ogoun. Etc.
This syncretism helped them to keep their spiritual traditions while (outwardly) praying to the Catholic saints. I think this kind of syncretism was similar to what happened throughout the world when Catholic/Christian beliefs were forced on tribal people.
In their lives as slaves, working on the plantations, these people had different languages and often did not understand each other. However, they began to share their traditions in ritual and symbolic form, thereby creating a way to relate to each other and work together for the good of their community. Vodou brought them together, nourished, and sustained them.
III. __NATIVE-AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT__
Of course, the Native Americans were already in America when the European colonists arrived. Many of them were enslaved, and many succumbed to the new European diseases. Many died, and many were slaughtered by the Europeans. Many others escaped into the hidden places like the mountains and the swamps.
When African slaves escaped, they often ran to the same hidden places and encountered the Native Americans. Many of the tribal and spiritual traditions were similar and merged. Some new ones were created, from the merger of the cultures. Once in a while, a European would also be accepted into the mix. These were all part of the development of the American version of Vodou, which is still developing and changing even in these “modern” times! This cultural sharing is also evident in “Hoodoo,” or “Conjure,” a collection of folk customs, some of which were derived from Vodou, but which do not share the religious context.
IV. __FREEDOM WON__
The merging of powerful Tribal and Shamanic traditions and energies in St. Domingue was strong enough to empower the people there to revolution. The people re-named St. Domingue with the Native American Arawak name of “Haiti” (pronounced Ayiti), and Haiti became the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
Of course, the majority of Europeans didn’t like this at all, and did everything they could to bring down the nation of Haiti. Some may argue that they still try! But Haiti is still alive, partly because of the resilience and persistence of the people, and that resilience and persistence is aided by their spiritual roots.
VI. __VODOU TODAY__
According to the website ReligiousTolerance.org, over 60 million people practice Vodou worldwide. Religions similar to Vodou can be found in South America where they are called Umbanda, Quimbanda or Candomble.
There are a lot of differences in the degree of inclusiveness in Vodou groups. Some Vodouisants (followers of the Vodou path, “those who serve the Spirits”) believe that only people from African descent can truly practice Vodou. This is similar to Native Americans who do not want the “white people” practicing Native American traditions or rituals. They do not want something so precious to be taken from them, which I understand.
However, most Vodouisants believe that it is up the Spirits as to who “serves.” One of these is Mama Zogbe (aka Vivian Hunter-Hindrew), who writes that Vodun (African-based Vodou is often called Vodun) “is an ancient tradition that transcends race, class and gender. All whom the deities call or who needs their powerful force in their lives are welcome.” Mama Zogbe believes that the Vodun existed in Africa and even into the European and East Asian continents for 10,000+ years. Mama Zogbe was initiated as a Mami Wata Priestess in Benin, Africa, and teaches an African-based version of Vodun. Vodun has been freely practiced in Benin since a democratic government was installed there in 1989.
In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest and Haiti’s first democratically elected President, declared Vodou an officially recognized religion. Unfortunately, Aristide was forced into exile in 2004, accusing the US of orchestrating the coup d'état against him with support from, among others, Jamaican Prime Minister P. J. Patterson.
Recently, however, Aristide has returned to Haiti to help its recovery from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
VI. __VODOU NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE__
Vodou is usually practiced by a group, although one can perform ceremonies and “services” solitary. The group can be called a “house,” a “society (or sosyete),” a “temple,” a “peristyle (dancing pavilion),” etc. The true Vodouisant is a member of a vital community that supports its members and sees to the health, protection, and spiritual sustenance of each and every one. Vodou is one of the few religions that have strong Female leaders as well as Male.
In 1884, an inaccurate and sensational book (S. St. John, __Haiti or the Black Republic__) was written . It described Vodun as a profoundly evil religion, and included lurid descriptions of human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc., some of which had been extracted from Vodun priests by torture. This book caught the imagination of people outside the West Indies, and was responsible for much of the misunderstanding and fear that is present today. Hollywood found this a rich source for the horror movies that began in the 1930's,this trend has continued today to misrepresent Vodun. It is only since the late 1950's that accurate studies by anthropologists have been published. Lately, books like __Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn__ by anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown have truly opened Vodou to show it honestly and intimately.
Because of the extreme prejudice against Vodou (caused by inaccurate and biased information), Vodouisants are still not very open with their gatherings. This is changing, as more people are seeking true knowledge and places like the Internet are enabling people to share. However, there will always be groups that keep to themselves and simply celebrate and serve their Spirits in their own way.
The most polarizing practice of Vodou is animal sacrifice. Since Vodou originated in a rural and agricultural mileu, or even in the jungles of Africa, people had a very visceral and close connection with the animals they hunted and/or raised as livestock. People killed the animals that they ate, and they were respectful and used every bit of the animal. Vodou ritualized the killing and aimed for a painless death for a healthy and happy animal. Usually the animals killed as offerings are cooked and eaten by the whole group after the Spirit has taken its part. This functions as a kind of communal celebration.
In modern times, several Vodou groups have decided not to use animal sacrifice. These groups say that they get good results without this practice, and some of the members are vegetarian. They find that the Spirits adjust and make their presence known with other kinds of offerings, like vegetables, candles, beautiful and creative artworks, etc. Other groups insist that animal sacrifice is a requirement of true Vodou.
Other Vodou practices include Sacred Baths (for different purposes, such as healing, love, protection, getting a job, etc.), special charms, herbal treatments, elaborate altars, processions to sacred places in nature, honoring the ancestors, funeral rites, initiations, infant blessings, etc. All the different needs of the community are covered by Vodou. And there is no rule that one cannot follow another religion while also serving the Vodou Spirits, either. In fact, there may be a bit of an “overlap” sometimes, as in honoring the different Catholic saints!
I believe that Vodou has a strong place in the future because of its earthiness and its ability to adjust to changes. It has always brought people together in the cause of freedom, joy, and spiritual celebration and healing....and it can bring those qualities into the future. Its music and rhythm are already hidden in our Blues, Jazz and Rock and Roll music. It is about the Wisdom of the Old Ones and Archetypal energies hidden in the most ancient human families. Reaching deep into the roots of humanity, to Africa, where our original ancestor lived, is necessary if we are to take humanity to the stars!
VII. __VODOU RESOURCES AND LINKS__
Following are a list of resources and links where you will find more information about Vodou. I have tried to choose resources that are interesting, valid, and educational. However, be aware that within the Vodou community, as in the general Pagan community, there are many debates and differences of interpretation of leadership and/or credentials. There is no “pope” of Vodou, though some may lay claim to that title. Vodou power comes from within.)
(Short overall description of Vodou)
(A very accurate and entertaining set of Lessons about Haitian Vodou by Mambo Racine Sans Bout, the founder of the Roots Without End Society)
(Article on “The Witches’ Voice” called __Haitian Vodou: Serving the Spirits__ by Michael Rock)
(A vast resource on African Vodun by Mama Zogbe--aka Vivian Hunter-Hindrew–with her feminist-based and African-centered history of Vodun. There are some practitioners of African-based Vodun that dispute her information.)
(New Orleans Voodoo Priestess....Vodou is often spelled “Voodoo” in New Orleans.)
(“We are the new face of Vodou today, and yet we reflect the old values of Vodou - family, community, commitment to the work of being servitors of spirit. We are European, Haitian, Latino and Native American.”–The Sosyete du Marche)
(Dominican Vodou from the Gade Nou Leve Society)
(Labelledeesse Vodou Temple from Haiti to Canada)
(La Source Ancienne Society, Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman)
(Le Peristyle Haitian Sanctuary)
(La Sosyete Belle Fleur Ginen, a Haitian Vodou house located in the United States with members in Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
(Tribe where there’s lots of info on Vodou and people honoring the Spirits.)
(Pagan group that includes honoring of the Vodou Spirits)
__Emporiums and Purveyors of Vodou Supplies and Information:__
(New Orleans-style Voodoo)
(Discussion groups and forums on Vodou, Conjure, Hoodoo, etc.)
(Voodoo, Hoodoo and Conjure supplies and historic information)
(Vodou supplies and more)
(New Orleans Vodou Supplies shop, sponsored “Voodoo Fest”)
__Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti__
by Maya Deren
(From the Review: “Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen" is a poetically rendered exploration of the philosophy and practices of Haitian Voodoun. Written in the early '50's (with the support of Joseph Campbell), this book is not a "how to" practical guide. Rather it a metaphysical, religious, philosophical & anthropological study of Voodoun. As an artist, Deren brings a uniquely lyrical voice to her narrative and paints a multi-textured, infinitely complex portrait of a spiritual tradition with roots stretching back to the very dawn of humanity.)
__The Book of Vodou__ by Leah Gordon
(Good overview, great pics)
__Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn__ by Karen McCarthy Brown
(A story about an anthropologist who becomes a Vodou initiate in New York City)
__Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau__ by Martha Ward
(A story about the real Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans)
__Vodou Visions__ by Sallie Ann Glassman
(Good intro to Vodou from one of the authors of the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot)
__Jambalaya__ by Luisah Teish
(African-based spirituality, including Vodou from native of New Orleans)
__The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa__
by Kenaz Filan
(Straightforward, culturally accurate information from a Pagan perspective)
__Vodou: Search for the Spirit__ by Laennec Hurbon
__Vodou__ by Manuela Dunn Mascetti
Here’s some videos that will show you a little about the practices and celebrations of Vodou:
(Cleansing where Papa Legba came through)
la belle deesse and others speak about Vodou
la belle deesse does a Petro ritual and embodies the Loa Erzulie Dantor
(this looks a bit scary, but watch how kind that Dantor is....how she makes sure everybody gets some of the food–she is a Motherly spirit who also was a Warrior in the Revolution. Some say she has connections to the Native American Arawaks who first lived on Haiti. The reason she cannot speak is that she had her tongue cut out during the Revolution! I think she may also be related to some Bird Goddess....)
Mami Wata initiates in Africa
Mami Wata trance
(She goes around in a circle to simulate the whirpool in the water)
Learning the dance of Damballah, the “Father Snake” Spirit
(whoo....this is good exercise!)
(Possessions by Spirit, Gro Mambo; videos at bottom)
(Possessions by gede mazaca and other Gedes, at the GedeFest in Haiti)
(Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman draws a Veve to call the Spirits)
(Dance for Legba: Africa)