What is Voodoo? Understanding a Misunderstood Religion
By Saumya Arya Haas
Editors Note: While this article uses the AP Style spelling, ‘Vodou’ is considered a more appropriate spelling by the author and other scholars.
Before I answer any questions, I have some for you: What do you know about Voodoo? Where did you get that impression?
Voodoo probably isn’t what you think it is. It might be easier to start with what Voodoo isn’t: Voodoo isn’t accurately portrayed in most movies, TV shows and books. Even some documentaries and non-fiction books are misleading. Voodoo isn’t a cult, black magic or devil worship. People who practice Voodoo are not witchdoctors, sorcerers or occultists. Voodoo isn’t a practice intended to hurt or control others. Most Voodooists have never seen a “Voodoo doll” (unless, like you, they saw it in a movie).
Voodoo isn’t morbid or violent. Voodoo isn’t the same everywhere. Not everyone who practices Voodoo does it in exactly the same way or agrees on exactly the same things. (This document only represents my understanding of Voodoo. I can’t speak for everyone!)
So, what is Voodoo?
Voodoo is a religion that originates in Africa. In the Americas and the Caribbean, it is thought to be a combination of various African, Catholic and Native American traditions. It is practiced around the world but there is no accurate count of how many people are Voodooists.
Voodoo has no scripture or world authority. It is community-centered and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility.
Voodoo is different in different parts of the world, and varies from community to community. This is mostly about Voodoo in New Orleans and Haiti.
Voodoo embraces and encompasses the entirety of human experience. It is practiced by people who are imperfect and may use religion for their own purposes.
What do Voodooists believe
To understand what they believe, you have to first understand how a Voodooist sees the world. Those who practice Voodoo believe that there is a visible and an invisible world, and that these worlds are intertwined. Death is a transition to the invisible world, so our predecessors are still with us in spirit. They watch over and inspire us.
In addition to our ancestors and loved ones we knew in life, there are the Lwa, which can also be understood as archetypes of human personalities (such as Ogun the warrior) and others that embody more specific concerns or localities (such as Marie Laveau in New Orleans). Each Lwa is actually a family of similar types (i.e. there is more than one Ogun; more than one way to be a warrior). Voodooists develop relationships with the Lwa to seek their counsel and help with concerns in the visible world. In some ways this is not dissimilar to the secular practice of studying and honoring remarkable historic figures. For example, someone who wishes to effect social change might find inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi and feel a kinship with them. They may read their books, keep a poster of them on the wall, place significance on their day of birth or death and try to live by their example. In a similar fashion, a Voodooist develops a relationship with particular Lwa, seeks to understand and embody the principles they represent, connects spiritually in order to affect personal transformation and manifest this energy in the visible world to help the living.
Like Catholic saints or Hindu deity figures, the Lwa are familiar and accessible whereas the “great good God,” although loving, is distant, and somewhat above individual human concerns.
Voodoo has ordained clergy, Hougan (priests) and Manbo (priestesses) that make a commitment to a spiritual path and can offer guidance when needed, but it is believed that each person is responsible for their own actions and capable of self-actualization. Voodooists especially places value on the strength of community for support and enrichment.
Just as there are differences within other faiths, there is great variation within Voodoo beliefs and practices. In places and times where conditions are very desperate, Voodoo is often focused on survival. In my New Orleans community, many Voodooists feel that part of religion is service to their community, so there is an emphasis on healing and social activism. We also have many artists and musicians in our community, further reflecting New Orleans’ unique cultural spirit.
If Voodoo is just another religion, why does everyone think it’s scary?
Racism clouds our view of Voodoo. It is rooted in slavery and intricately connected to this hemisphere’s political and social evolution. Voodoo was first practiced in America and the Caribbean by slaves of African descent, whose culture was both feared and ridiculed. Slaves were not considered fully human. Their religion was dismissed as superstition, their priests were denigrated as witchdoctors, their Gods and Spirits were denounced as evil.
One of the only successful slave revolutions in modern history occurred in Haiti in the late 1700s. Slaves of African descent overthrew European rulers and took control of the country. Many slaves were Voodooists, and some of their military leaders were priests who inspired and organized their communities to fight for freedom. The Haitian Revolution provoked fear in other European and American colonies that were reliant on vast numbers of slaves as plantation labor. The imagery and vocabulary of Voodoo (and other Afro-Caribbean religions) became threatening and ingrained in those cultures as something horrifying, associated with bloodshed and violence. It was brutally repressed in most places. It became taboo.
Over time, American culture became fascinated by this mysterious tradition and began to depict it in movies and books as sensationalized horror. “Voodoo” practices were dreamed up by Hollywood; most of the disturbing images fixed in our minds are something we saw in a movie. Hollywood created a mythology that we have taken as truth. “Voodoo” has become part of modern folklore as something evil that can hurt us.
But Voodoo is widely practiced in Haiti, and it is still relevant in politics there. Politics and religion make a controversial mix. In that regard, Voodoo is the same as any belief system. In the U.S., many Voodooists are afraid of how they will be treated so they hide their religion. While this is understandable, it also reinforces suspicion that they practice in secret to conceal something bad or violent. Fear begets fear.
We aren’t always aware of the origins of our beliefs; now and then we need to reassess what we know and how we know it. There were times in our nation’s history that other groups (e.g. Jews, Catholics) were similarly reviled. It’s only through education and getting to know those with different beliefs that we can overcome our fear and realize that they are ordinary people who enrich our communities.