In our American, Westernized, Christian society, media and religion do a great job of demonizing nontraditonal religious practices. Whether or not some think other religious practices are from the satanic pits of hell or are simply the product of God’s good humor, the media plays a significant role in promoting negative, sometimes eerie images of various cultures. Voodoo in particular has been one of those ideas many tend not to dabble with, for fear of opening the door to some satanic forces; understandable. But there is more to this perverted, aggrandized side of the practice.
Voodoo is actually a religion, not necessarily a form of witchcraft. In fact, it is more Christian like than most popular schemes seem to portray. It is also called Vodun, Vaudou, or Vodou, which means ‘god.’ Contrary to popular belief, it is a monotheistic religion in which there are many spirits and ancestors who intercede and interact with devotees.
Deities or spirits within the religion play an important role. They act as protection for humans and have a strong connection with humans.
Michel S. Laguerre, author of “Voodoo Heritage,” writes, “Songs and prayers are directed either to God, to African spirits, or to ancestral Creole spirits. Prayers to God are rare; devotees talk primarily to spirits.”
According to Anthony B. Pinn, author of “The African American Religious Experience in America,” the religion is a derivation of African spiritual practices and French Catholicism enslaved Africans created to preserve their connection to God, spirit, and home. Characteristics of Voodoo are closely matched to traditions of the Congo and Benin. The religion is strongly represented in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean. It was the inspiring force that fueled the Haitian Revolution.
The creator, called Bondye or Mawa-Lisa, is the Supreme Being who controls life and destiny. Other deities, called loa, according to tradition were once humans but are now deified manifestations of Bondye.
Like the saints of Catholicism or orisa of Yoruba traditions, the loa perform certain tasks and have specific gifts and talents. Material objects typically represent loa. While Loa are given attention, devotees also share their concentration on ancestral spirits to maintain a balanced life.
Here is where commercial depictions and the small slice of Voodoo is amplified and perverted.
Voodoo practitioners are also aware of evil spirits (baka), Pinn writes. The cosmology of the religion is complex and hard to conform to a Westerner’s religious worldview, but we shall attempt to tackle this portion of the religion.
Pinn explains, for example, magicians (bocor) or certain Voodoo priests may consult evil spirits in order to perform a task, but in the venture to increase the good in their life. He says bocor have tools, like the zombie “the soulless body that follows the orders of the bocor.”
Now, the concept of good and evil are relative and do not fit in the typical Christian moral concept. Pinn writes that nothing is inherently evil and nothing is unchangeably good.
Spirits are typically consulted, however, for individual life prosperity that it may benefit the community. Voodoo is a community centered religion and does not necessarily promote physical harm against people. One little myth we can dispel, is the use of Voodoo dolls. Traditionally, the dolls are not used to inflict harm. Religious scholars suggest the origin is actually from European folklore.
Voodoo is an oral tradition that is grounded in the importance of connecting life with the unseen. Leaders of the community are often seen as the “doctor” who consults the spirits for guidance on an individual’s behalf. Through holistic and traditional healing, physical needs are addressed, but that is not to say conventional doctors are avoided.
The evolution of religion and enforcement of slavery in the United States harvested an interesting variation of Voodoo on the mainland. Pinn writes, Africans were frequently brought to coastal states like Georgia and South Carolina, renewing dying religious traditions. Although Louisiana is popularly associated with Voodoo, Pinn says other states were likely candidates for preserving African culture.
The Haitian Revolution in 1791 also influenced the growth of Voodoo in the United States. He says fleeing slaveholders brought enslaved Africans to North America, bringing the traditions with them. But the influx of African information and culture began to decline when enslaved Blacks were being born within the states and fewer Africans were brought to the country.
As a result, Pinn says survived traditions in the U.S. heavily focused on snake deities like Li Grand Zombi. Other loa emerged as a result of Christian influence.
Pinn says a more corrupt form of the religion that is commercialized is better known as Hoodoo. He says it possibly comes from slaveholders and authorities attempting to suppress African culture. As practices went underground, a “mutated” form emerged.
“Hoodoo does not contain the same attention to community, but rather involves manipulation of forces for the benefit of particular individuals. Furthermore, Hoodoo does not entail the same complex cosmology.”
He says Hoodoo is a magic-centered practice, rather than a spiritual, cosmological relationship with the deities Voodoo embraces.
Religion in the African Diaspora is complex and has several elements. As Hollywood chooses exaggerations of religion to exemplify and even demonize Voodoo, its collection of spiritual elements is much more elaborate than other more traditional religions.