Few things conjure up more thoughts of spells and ritualistic ceremonies than Voodoo. The history of Voodoo has its roots in West Africa, transferring to the Americas via the slave trade. But something that has become clear to us is there are two kinds of voodoo: the real kind and the Hollywood kind. Hollywood has, in typical fashion, exaggerated various parts of the story to sell more movies; it has mixed various religious traditions and has overstated (or wrongly attributed) various practices such as the making of dolls and dark arts. Even the recent Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog” used the character of Dr. Facilier as a black magic trickster and the character of Mama Odie (the “Voodoo Queen of the Bayou”, a reference to legendary Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau) as an example of a positive magical conjurer. Voodoo is, in fact, a community based religion which recognizes one supreme being and various lesser spirits. (Sound familiar?) Voodooists emphasize a moral code and refrain from hurting others. They are also known for their energy-filled drum and dance ceremonies. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dig into the real facts about Voodoo in this list of 25 True Things You May Not Know About Voodoo.
Voodoo is a spiritual expression that blends together indigenous African religions with animism and spiritism. Sometimes, shamanism and witchcraft are also thrown into the fray.
The two worlds
Voodooists hold central to their belief that there are two interrelated worlds: the visible and the invisible. Death separates us from the invisible world where our ancestors still watch over us.
The most famous versions of Voodoo
Voodoo is most known in three places: West Africa, Haiti, and Louisiana. Beyond there, it is sometimes practiced in places which had many West African slaves such as Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Most Voodooists believe in a supreme being, though the deity is more distant and less accessible than lesser spirits. This monotheistic religion refers to god as Bondye.
All voodoo practitioners are known for interacting with lesser spirits, often called “lwa”. The spirits often differ between branches and some have even been merged with Catholic saints after the collision of European Christianity and African Voodoo.
Relationship with the lwa
Voodooists develop relationships with the lwa to ask their advice and learn from their experience and connect with them on a spiritual level.
The lwa and nature
All of the lwa are connected to some sort of natural force, such as Ogou, the male lwa of iron and metallic powers.
Voodoo's status in Haiti
Voodoo is protected under the 1987 Haitian constitution, but this wasn’t always the case. In an attempt to ostracize the religion, the Catholic Church burned Voodoo shrines and beat its clergy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
Voodoo does not have a leader nor definitive scriptures.
Voodoo dolls aren't really a thing
The commonly cited Voodoo dolls aren’t entirely Voodoo dolls but rather come from a type of African folk magic named Hoodoo. The dolls, often made to transfer a curse onto somebody, are made from corn shafts, potatoes, plant matter, clay, or clothes. Despite Hollywood’s over-hyping of the dolls, they are not used by most Voodoo practitioners.
Communication with the lwa
Voodooists communicate with lesser spirits through prayer, animal sacrifice, possessions and drum/dance ceremonies.
Clergy in Voodoo
Men and women can be ordained as clergy in the Voodoo religion and are known as Hougan and Mambo, respectively. Though they can offer advice to followers, it is maintained that everyone is individually capable of their own enlightenment. A strong sense of community is nonetheless one of the central tenants of Voodooism.
Voodoo was banned in Saint Domingue
In 1685, France banned any practicing of African religions in their colony of Saint Domingue. Slave owners were required to Christianize their slaves within 8 days of arrival and many were baptized. Slaves didn’t give up their native religions but rather merged them with Catholicism to give the appearance to the slave drivers they had converted.
New Orleans Voodoo's roots
The Voodoo tradition in Louisiana and especially New Orleans was brought by African and Creole slaves fleeing the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century.
A Voodoo priest starts the Haitian Revolution
Boukman Dutty – a Voodoo priest – is widely recognized as starting the Haitian Revolution after making prophesies and declaring leaders at a religious ceremony in August 1791.
The centrality of healing
Central to Voodoo is healing people from illnesses. Herbs are used and the lwa are invoked to heal the sick.
The origin of the word "Voodoo"
The word Voodoo comes from the West African language of Fon and means “spiritual entity”. The Fon were and are an ethnic and linguistic group mainly centered around southern Benin.
The legendary Voodoo queen
The legendary Creole Voodoo queen Marie Laveau was well-renowned in New Orleans and has been featured in numerous movies and books. Legend says if you draw an “X” on her tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, and scream out your wish, the Voodoo queen will grant it. (Unfortunately, the tomb has recently been closed to the general public due to vandalism.)
Possession in Voodoo
Voodooists believe the lwa can possess a worshiper’s body during certain religious ceremonies. It’s also believed the soul can escape from the body while dreaming and during possession by a lwa.
St. Peter as Papa Legba
In Haitian Voodoo, St. Peter is known as Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the spirit world – similar to his position as gatekeeper to Heaven in the Catholic tradition.
The reason for animal sacrifice
The practice of sacrificing an animal during a Voodoo ceremony is to give life energy to the lwa. The killing releases life which helps rejuvenate the lwa who have been busy managing the universe.
Current day adherents
About 4 million people in Benin and 5 million in Haiti adhere to Voodoo today, among others in smaller groups across the world.
Voodoo follows a moral code
Contrary to a false myth perpetuated in the late 1800’s to discredit African religions, Voodoo has never included human sacrifice. Such an act would contradict its moral code which strictly prohibits the harming of others.
Traditional Voodoo law enforcement
Zangbetos are the traditional night guards in Benin and Togo. Made up of a man in a costume resembling a haystack, the Zangbeto are traditional Voodoo guardians who patrol the streets at night and, if falling into a trance, can even be possessed by a lwa. Before the establishment of official law enforcement, the Zangbetos were the primary force of law in Benin.
Voodoo's true self
Overall, Voodoo is not about black magic and spells, but rather a community-based religion which focuses on healing and doing well to others. The religion helped African slaves persevere through harsh working conditions and continues to inspire and invigorate its millions of modern-day practitioners.