Nearly everyone has heard the word Voodoo before, and chances are that the word conjures up images of voodoo dolls with pins in them and curses. But did you know that voodoo is one of the most misunderstood religions on the planet?
The Religion of Voodoo
That’s right, voodoo is a religion. Started well before the 15th century in the African country of Benin, Voudou or Voudon (as it is correctly called) is a monotheistic religion that believes in a single supreme being. There are then a number of Loa, or spirits that are prayed to in order to help with what the believer needs. These Loa are the intermediaries between the person and the supreme creator. Snakes are considered to be important in the Voudon religion, and there is a “Temple of the Python” in Benin where people often make a pilgrimage to, much like Christian religions might make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In the 15th century, slavery became a huge trade and as those individuals were captured and brought to the Slave Coast of Africa, they brought their religious beliefs with them. Those slaves that were brought to the Caribbean are perhaps the closest to the original religion of Africa. The slaves that came to the Mississippi Valley (especially around Louisiana/New Orleans) practice more of a “clean” version. In both cases, the populations were subject to colonizers efforts to convert them to Christianity. When they reached the New World, they were given only EIGHT DAYS to convert, leading to the blending of imagery that we see today in the true practice. Remove all of the misconceptions, superstitions, and other falsehoods that plague the faith largely due to racism and misrepresentation in pop culture and the beliefs are not all that different from those of most mainstream world religions.
Everything is Spirit
Voudou is a worldview encompassing philosophy, medicine, and justice. Its fundamental principle is that everything is spirit. Humans are spirits who inhabit the visible world. The unseen world is populated by loa (spirits), mystè (mysteries), anvizib (the invisibles), zanj (angels), and the spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased. All these spirits are believed to live in a mythic land called Ginen, a cosmic “Africa” (very similar to the Christian idea of the Garden of Eden). The God of the Christian Bible is understood to be the creator of both the universe and the spirits; the spirits were made by God to help him govern humanity and the natural world.
Practitioners began to take their traditional beliefs and weave them into the ideas being pushed by the missionaries. We can see this play out in the spirits that are prayed to and called upon - for example, the spirit known as Baron Samedi is often interchangeable with Saint Patrick. Papa Legba is often associated with St. Peter, and Madame Bridgette is often represented as the Irish goddess Brigid. To this day, many in the Vodou faith still attend Christian church services on Sundays and incorporate Catholic imagery into their worship. Anthropologists estimate that there are more than 60 million followers worldwide, and they are so intermeshed with the Catholic faith that the Vatican recognizes them as an official religion.
The 5 Basic Intentions of Voodoo
Voudou is treated as any other religion, and has a set structure, priests, prayers, etc. that focuses on 5 basic intentions:
Services are almost exclusively performed in French Creole, which is part of why many insist that you have to be chosen or initiated in order to be a Voudou practitioner. When you think of the pop culture understanding of Voodoo you are most likely thinking of the practices that are considered hoodoo.
What is Hoodoo?
Hoodoo has no organized structure or restrictions like Voudou does. Much like Wicca, anyone can practice and you can create your own rituals and spells. Spells and workings are nearly always done in English. The craft of Hoodoo is very similar to the work that herbalists have done through history and nearly all ingredients are easily sourced. This tends to be because slaves would not have had access to expensive ingredients, so most items can easily be found in your very own kitchen!
Voodoo in the Mainstream
Hollywood has taken the prejudices of early Christian missionaries and runs with the ideas of curses, voodoo dolls and zombies. New Orleans took it one step further and realized that it was a great money-making opportunity so every shop in the town markets those same ideas. Keep that in mind the next time you see someone offering services to curse someone or bring back a lover, be sure to ask questions, and you can easily uncover if they are a legitimate root worker, or if they are using the Voodoo label to make money. As we grow more as a society and start making further strides towards racial equality, you can expect to see that more and more practitioners are putting away the Christian versions of the saints and instead “unmasking” the true faces of the Loa.
While the ideas of Voudou are fairly universal, to the point where most anyone can feel drawn to it, it becomes increasingly important that we stay educated. There are many people out there who pose as legitimate, and who may be guilty of cultural appropriation. By educating ourselves and others about the reality of this complex religion we can ensure that the significance and historical impact is not lost under a coat of white washing.