America, Haiti

Voodoo:The Truth Behind the Myth by M J Steel Collins

Voodoo is a very disquieting topic for some, conjuring up images of zombies, hexes and other types of nasties. However, there is quite a sizable gulf between the myth and reality. The fact is Voodoo is very much far removed from the notion of something that involves “sticking pins in dolls and killing people”. Much of what is ‘known’ about Voodoo comes from the stories pedalled by Hollywood and other purveyors of mass popular culture in the West. In many ways, Voodoo is the ultimate Exotic Other. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the reality of this religion is the racism that started its negative connotations, which continue to be perpetuated. The aim of this article is to get behind the negative image and explore the truths of Voodoo; hold on to your belief systems – it might be a bumpy ride.
To begin, we need to clear up some terminology. Voodoo is probably the most popular term, but it can change depending on the area. In Louisiana, Voodoo appears to be the norm, whilst in Haiti, the term Vodou is used. Vodun is the name of the African religion from which Voodoo/Vodou developed. Other terms include Voudon, Vudun, and Voudou. The complexities of the correct name are probably the simplest of all the details relating to Voodoo to get your head around. For the sake of ease, I’ll use Voodoo throughout, unless discussing Haitian Vodou. To clarify another linked term, Hoodoo is the folk belief system that arose out of Louisiana Voodoo, and seems to be another matter altogether.
Where did the misrepresentation of Voodoo come from in the first instance? There are a variety of causes, all of which have their roots in ignorance and prejudice. Historically, Voodoo has been portrayed as opposing the ‘true religion’, Christianity, which has a certain irony given that many followers of Voodoo are Christian. Karen McCarthy Brown, author of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklynstates, “The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films and television, where images of sorcerers, zombi, snakes, blood and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil.” She adds that the racism used towards Voodoo wouldn’t be acceptable with regard to other religions.
An example of the origins of this can be seen in the reactions of other countries towards Haiti following the slave revolt of 1791 – 1803, after which Haiti declared a republic. But leaders in Europe and the US refused to recognise Haiti as a nation in its own right because of what they saw as the ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’ religion practiced by Haitian people – voodoo. As a result, Haiti was left politically isolated for several decades, which also had an interesting impact on the development of Haitian Vodou, which will be discussed in detail shortly. Some progress in theological terms appeared to be made in 1967 by Pope Paul VI in his document Africae Terrarum, which validated tradition African religion.
As for the origins of Voodoo, they can be traced back to the 1700s and that unpleasant historical artefact known as The Slave Trade. Many slaves being brought over were taken from their homes in modern day Togo and Benin. The religion of those areas (Vodun) was influenced by the Fun, Ewe and Yoruba ethnic groups.  The same religion is still practiced in Benin. Newly arrived slaves held on to their traditional beliefs, which they began to adapt to fit their perilous situation. At the same time, slave owners banned their slaves from practicing African religion, instead forcing them to convert to Christianity. In Louisiana and Haiti, the dominant form of Christianity was Catholicism. However, the slaves weren’t willing to give up on their own religious faith, and so continued to practice it under the guise of Catholicism. As time went on, the syncretic process occurred, wherein certain dominant facets of different religions combine into a new belief system, and Voodoo/Vodou came into being.
Voodoo is quite a fluid belief system. Nothing is set in stone. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that people interact with Voodoo in their own way. There are also other religions, Candomblé and Santeria, which at first glance appear to be other forms of Voodoo. But the similarity lies in the fact that they also have links in tradition African religions.  The variations in its practice in different parts of the world are notable, as can be seen in differences between Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo.
Haitian Vodou is regarded as being the closest to its Haitian roots. This is due to the isolation of the fledgling republic in its early years. It is a religion shaped by the oppression and poverty that have been a constant in Haitian life for the last two centuries. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, its history a harsh tale of military and political corruption. Vodou is a way for the average Haitian to get through life. This is emphasised frequently by Karen McCarthy Brown in Mama Lola, which is an ethnographic account of the life of a Haitian immigrant vodou priestess Alourdes, the eponymous Mama Lola. It is an intriguing and beguiling book, weaving the standard anthropological explanation of Vodou with Alourdes’ family legends. Sadly, in recent years both Alourdes and Karen McCarthy Brown have fallen into poor health, but their book has come to be very highly regarded.
The inconsistent nature of Voodoo as a whole means it’s probably next to impossible to get a definitive account of any of its forms: Jerry Gandolfino of the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans stated in an email that a book on the subject will only be able to provide “a snapshot” of Voodoo in a certain place and time, as any changes will also change Voodoo. Certainly, you can see this in Mama Lola when Alourdes absorbs a belief associated with another religion into her personal practice of Vodou. Alourdes makes it less obvious that she is priestess over the years that Karen knows her because of the aloof attitudes she encounters, switching to keeping her altars hidden away in cabinets, whereas before, they were laid out on tables.
Nevertheless, Mama Lola gives an excellent break down of how Haitian Vodou operates in general. There is a strong emphasis on family and community ties. These can be difficult for Haitian immigrants to maintain in the United States, as they lack the network they had back in Haiti. Alourdes comments that in Port-Au-Prince, she would have no problem getting a big gathering together for a ritual or birthday party for one of the spirits. In Brooklyn, she scrabbles around a small group of relatives and friends, bringing in new people such as Karen who become a surrogate family. There is a marked difference between the rituals held in Haiti, where temples have earthen floors that can have offerings of wine, rum and blood poured directly on them. In New York, offerings are poured into them. Clapping at Alourdes’ ceremonies is quiet enough not to disturb the neighbours. In Haiti she would have used drums. Gathering food and other items to honour the spirits is a more difficult and expensive endeavour. One issue is the use of live fowl such as chickens as sacrifices results in a long drive across town in New York. In Haiti, it’s just a case of going to the market. Vodou priests and priestesses carry a lot of respect; priests are known as Ougan, and tend to be more powerful than the priestess, known as Manbo.
In Haitian Vodou, God, known as Bondye, is unlike the Christian counterpart in that He doesn’t get involved in human life. Instead there is a pantheon of spirits, known as Iwa or Loa, who interact on Bondye’s behalf. The Loa, of which there is a sizeable group, are associated with Saints. Unlike Saints, they aren’t exemplars of virtuosity. They can be fickle, caring, angry and loving, their actions at ceremonies showing the various outcomes of a given situation in life as an example to their faithful. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that vodou is tied up in the dramas of life, and are acted out during rituals, where the spirits are asked to intervene in a given situation. Serving the Loa has a considerable impact on the life of Vodou practitioners. Much of Vodou is about healing.
When interacting with the Loa, Legba, has to be honoured first as he is the gatekeeper of the links between the spirit and human worlds. His saintly counterpart is St Peter. Damballah, associated with Saint Patrick, is the ‘snake god’, and father of all the Loa. The Ezilli Loa, ranging in several from Freda to Dante, relates to affairs of the heart and are female spirits. They are tied to the Virgin Mary. Gede or Mr Bones – to name just a few of his titles – rules the cemetery, and is associated with St Gerard. The Ogou spirits represent various forms of power and react to it in a number of ways. Ogou in his original form is an African spirit. In Vodou, he carries such responsibility; he has broken into a number of different spirits. Generally, they are warriors or soldiers, linked with St James. Reflecting the way in which Vodou and Haitian life intertwine, Ogou has close associations with Haiti’s turbulent military history.
Each person has their own personal grouping of spirits whom they consult and honour the most. The main spirit, who manages a person, is called the met tet. A manbo or ougan can see who is a person’s met tet – for instance, Alourdes notices that she and Karen share the same met tet, Ogou Badgari. Individuals share similar personality traits with their met tet. This may predispose them to a certain way of acting, but the presence of the other spirits balances this out. To form a closer bond with personal spirits, people can marry certain Loa, as Alourdes did with some of hers. Whilst all the spirits are honoured on special days and in ceremony, birthday parties are held especially for personal spirits. Alourdes during the time covered in Mama Lola, held six annually for her favoured spirits.
During rituals, offerings are laid out to honour the Loa. Dance, singing and clapping or drumming are used to draw the Loa forward. The Loa possess the manbo or priestess (or indeed certain of the others present). In Vodou, this is called being ridden by the spirits as the spirit mounts and rides an individual much in the same way a person can mount and ride a horse. Generally, the person being ridden has no memory of what happens. The spirit takes over their body to conduct business, give out food and interact with the practioners. They also require the person they are riding to wear the associated clothing of the spirit; in the case of Ogou, this may be a military style jacket and he also requires his sword. During the rituals, those present can ask the spirit to help them out with any problem in their life. Alourdes and her family consult the spirits on just about every aspect of their lives. Family spirits also play an important part for Alourdes, her family legends bearing particular significance. Alourdes often uses the words of her great grandfather and grandfather in her rituals.
In Louisiana Voodoo, many things, such as serving the Loa, are similar to Haitian Vodou. The main differences are that in Louisiana Voodoo, there are Voodoo Queens, the utilisation of Hoodoo material and gris gris. There is also a stronger emphasis on the worship of the snake deity, Li Grande Zombi. Unlike in Christianity, where the serpent is equated to Satan, the snake is a positive thing in Louisiana Voodoo, having a key role in rituals. During the 18th century, when slaves were brought into Louisiana, African based culture gained a strong foothold owing to the unstable nature of the new Louisiana society. The number of slave owners was relatively small, allowing the diffusion of African cultural traits; also there was a strong bond amongst slaves as they had a high mortality rate. This was a fertile ground for a syncretic religion like Voodoo to develop and take hold. The use of amulets and charms in these early days, either for protection or to curse others was essential for survival. The African trait of ancestor worship also resulted in the emphasis on respect for elders, which meant old slaves were well looked after.
Voodoo thrived and developed the most in the era of the 1830s and 1930s; it saw the emergence of the Voodoo Queen, the growing use of gris gris, and the introduction of African language to Creole culture. Voodoo grew, fusing with the Catholic saints and developing the sounds and rhythms that eventually developed Jazz. The Mardi Gras also became associated with Voodoo and ritual moved into the processional. The 19th century also saw the reign of Marie Laveau, famous as the most powerful Voodoo Queen in all of New Orleans. Her powers were formidable and respected. She held rituals at her home, also carrying out healing and helping the poor. She was also a devout Catholic and encouraged her followers to do the same.  From the 1930s, Voodoo became commercialised thanks to Hollywood, but the negative portrayal of the religion sent its traditional practitioners into obscurity. Voodoo became a tourist attraction to visitors in New Orleans, who were rebuffed by priests and priestesses for requesting favours. As traditional practioners fell into the shadows, people spotting a quick buck soon set themselves up in business selling gris gris and related material to the tourists. Traditionally, Voodoo practioners didn’t charge for this. The result was that a set of folk beliefs known as Hoodoo grew up, servicing the tourist market.

Today, Voodoo still thrives in Louisiana, but is carried out away from the prying eyes of the eager tourist. Rituals are carried out privately, as doing them in public is disrespectful to the spirits. Witch doctors, who probably have more in common with the negative stereotype of Voodoo, are shunned in New Orleans. Voodoo is a force for good. Queens and gris gris are also to be found. With gris gris, it’s the intent of the magic that counts. The word gris gris is an African term, originating in Senegal and Mali. Gris gris  is used for a number of things, from love and power to luck and breaking hexes. As for Voodoo dolls, their purpose is not to kill or curse, but also to heal – sticking a pin in the doll represents releasing a positive force into a person’s life. Modern Voodoo has a strong emphasis on helping and healing. It is used to treat a number of things including anxiety and addiction. The spirits still play a prominent role. Marie Laveau is seen as an important ancestor spirit. Both Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners petition her to interact on their behalf. Her grave in St Louis Cemetery receives more visitors than Elvis Presley’s tomb in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.

Other Sources of information:

Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

The Voodoo Museum, New Orleans


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