Voodoo Religions: History & Facts

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will give an overview of Voodoo, more properly known as Vodou. The roots and origins of Vodou will be explored, and its basic components will be described.

What Is Voodoo (or Vodou)?

Voodoo is perhaps the most misunderstood religion in the world. For starters, Voodoo is almost always spelled Vodun or Vodou by anthropologists, religion scholars, and practitioners themselves. Through a combination of deliberate, racist distortion, and Hollywood sensationalism, Vodou has come to be associated with devil worship, evil curses, 'voodoo dolls,' and zombies. These distortions have nothing to do with the living or historical religious traditions of West Africa and the African Diaspora.

A sketch of several Vodou practitioners from 1864.

The word Vodou is a Haitian Creole rendering of several different West African words in several West African languages, including Ewa, Fon, and Kwa. The word vodun, in its basic sense simply means spirit. So the term Vodou can be understood to mean something like spirit-ism. There is no official Church of Vodou, no universally accepted sacred texts, and no standardized set of rituals; Vodou takes on many different forms throughout the parts of the world in which it is practiced. The roots of Vodou can be found in the various indigenous religions of what is today Nigeria, Benin and Togo in West Africa. Beginning in the 15th century, millions of indigenous people from West Africa were kidnapped, forcibly taken to the Americas and/or the Caribbean, and forced into brutal slavery. These indigenous peoples brought their religion with them, which took on different forms and influences in different parts of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Throughout South America, Central America, North America, and the Caribbean, different West African-based religious traditions exist, including Santeria, Candomble, and Umbanda. For the purposes of specificity, this lesson will focus on Vodou as it is practiced in Haiti. Additionally, connections will be made between Haitian Voudu, and the West African traditions that it is derived from.

The Loa

The Loa are the family of spirits that are the principal focus of Vodou devotion. Vodou practitioners typically believe that the world was created by a single creator God, known as Bondye. Although Bondye is the creator of the universe, he is also distant; Bondye is understood to be too big, too different from humans, and too concerned with cosmic maintenance to address directly, which is where the Loa come in. The Loa serve as middle men between the immense sacred power of Bondye and the everyday needs of humans. Each Loa typically has his or her own jurisdiction, areas of concern, unique personality, likes and dislikes.

There are many Loa evoked in Haitian Vodou. Gede, sometimes called Papa Gede, is the playful spirit of cemeteries, sexuality, and death. Ogun is a spirit associated with war and vengeance. Zaka helps out farmers and can be seen as a sort of fertility God. Perhaps the two most ancient Loa are Danbala and Aida Hwedo, the serpent and the rainbow. Danbala and Aida Hwedo are married, and both are simultaneously serpents and rainbows. This paradoxical association between the serpent and the rainbow emphasizes ambiguity, transcendence, and the ability to be of water, earth, and air all at once. These examples are only a handful of the more popular Loa in Haitian Vodou, and all have similar versions in different parts of West Africa and the Diaspora.

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