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Voodoo Religions: Beliefs & Rituals

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  • 0:04 The Origins of Voodoo
  • 1:42 Voodoo Beliefs
  • 2:13 Voodoo Lwa
  • 3:05 Voodoo Spirit Possession
  • 3:37 Voodoo Rituals
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we look at the mysterious and intriguing religion of Voodoo. To sort fact from fiction, we'll explore some of their actual beliefs and a few of their rituals to get a better idea of what Voodoo really is.

The Origins of Voodoo

Just about everyone has heard of Voodoo, whether from the many horror films of the 20th and 21st centuries or from visiting tourist attractions in New Orleans. How much do people really know about this religion though? What are the facts among all the folklore and sensational fiction? In this lesson, we'll take a look at the actual beliefs and some of the rituals to help dispel the myths and better understand this religion.

Where Did It Come From?

The early origins of Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, Voudou, and Voudon, likely came from the West African country of Dahomey, now called Benin. In the Fon language, the world ''voodoo'' means ''spirit.'' During the Slave Trade, a shameful time in human history, many people were taken from Africa and brought to the New World to work as slave labor. One of the places where they were taken to was Haiti, a Caribbean island. Here, a large number of West Africans kept their traditions alive, even though they were also forced to adopt Catholicism. Voodoo developed as a blending of their traditional beliefs and customs with the practices of Africans from other regions and the influence of Catholicism.

When the Haitian slaves fought back against their captors in 1791, a revolt lead by Voodoo priests called hougans and Voodoo priestesses called manbos drove the French out of Haiti during the course of 5 years. Some of the French fled to New Orleans and brought some of their slaves with them. These slaves brought Haitian Voodoo. While many slaves in New Orleans practiced their own variation of Voodoo, it was not as influential as the quickly spreading Haitian Voodoo.

Voodoo Beliefs

The West African roots of Voodoo come from the ancient practices of ancestor worship and animism, which is the belief that spirits inhabit all things, including animals and plants. Voodoo practitioners believe in a supreme god named Bondye who is all-powerful yet remains detached from human affairs. Bondye and all the spirits dwell in an invisible world entwined with our own. Although Bondye remains detached, Voodoo practitioners can seek help from the many spirits of the ancestors and nature to help with their problems.

Voodoo Lwa

TheLwa, pronounced as Loh-ah, are spirits more powerful than a person's deceased relatives. These spirits are not single entities but groups or categories of spirit types, such as the warrior, the mother, the sorcerer, and so on. Thus, praying to the Lwa Ogun might call any number of Lwa warrior spirits.

A few exceptions exist for extremely powerful Lwa or powerful ancestral spirits tied to specific locations who are only a single, powerful spirit. An example of the first type is Papa Legba, the gatekeeper between our world and the invisible world of the spirits. Interestingly, with the forced imposition of Catholicism on the West Africans, they equated St. Peter with Papa Legba in their worship. The second type were locally-bound and powerful ancestral spirits and include famous figures like Marie Laveau, a powerful Voodoo priestess of New Orleans.

Voodoo Spirit Possession

The Lwa are believed to enter our world and interact with people through spirit possession. This is nothing like the demonic possession you might be familiar with from popular films like The Exorcist, in which the spirit must be battled and driven out of the person. Instead, the Voodoo practitioner is overtaken by the spirit, usually as part of a ritual. The possession only lasts for a few minutes to a few hours, leaving the possessed person exhausted and with no memory of the experience. During that time, however, the spirits will prophesize, heal, and bless people.

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