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In the west, commonly when someone mentions Voodoo, it evokes ideas of black magic, devil worship, scary sorcery, and films tend to depict Voodoo as originating in Haiti.
But in fact this scary reputation mainly comes from Europeans and Christians from the past who sought to quash and dehumanise the people of Africa and their religions.
Where does Voodoo come from?
Some people believe that Voodoo is the world’s oldest religion.
The religion of Voodoo, (or Vodoun as it is also known, particularly by those who practice it), is thought by many to originate from Benin, a country in West Africa, but is also practiced on the West coast, including people from Togo, Angola, Nigeria and so on. The slave trade in 16th-18th century meant that many Africans were shipped to places such as Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and the USA, spreading the religion.
However the religious aspects were often changed and lost in these places and much of Voodoo became Hoodoo, which is generally thought not to be a religion, instead mainly focused on the magic and medicinal aspects of Voodoo. I’ll be explaining more about Hoodoo in my next article. The word Voodoo actually comes from Vodou, which is the name of the spirits that the people worship.
For many years Voodoo had to be practiced in secret, until 1996, January 10th which is now Nation Voodoo Day in Benin, and people celebrate with song, dance and sacrifices. This suppression was due to the European colonial influence and also the zealous Christians, who generally tried to quash local religions, perhaps believing this was a good way to control people, and in colonial times fines, torture and death could be imposed upon people found to be practicing Voodoo. Today there are an estimated 50 million worshippers around the world.
So what is Voodoo all about?
Voodoo is an animistic religion, which means that the followers believe that god is in everything from the leaves of trees, to the wind that blows. It’s a Polytheistic religion, like Paganism, meaning that there are many gods, and again similar to Paganism is the idea of revering nature. Ancestor worship is also another very important aspect.
Ceremonies and Rituals of Vodoun
There are complex ceremonies and rituals in which the aim is usually to make contact with a spirit (the Vodou), perhaps an ancestor, or one of their lesser deities (called the Loa). People try to gain their favour by offering animal sacrifices and gifts, in order to get help such as better health, luck or abundance. The humans and the Loa are co-dependant in this way, with the Loa giving protection and good fortune and the people giving gifts.
Rituals are also held to celebrate lucky or important events, such to give thanks for rain, for marriages, births and deaths, and for healing.
Ceremonies often last all night and are an exciting affair, with singing, drumming and chanting.
The Sakpata Guardian Ritual
Let’s follow one girl – Ianthe (meaning violet flower) into her initiation and receiving of her guardian
First the oracles are consulted to see which divinity she will align with, who will become her supernatural guardian? The god Sakpata is revealed – god of disease and protection. He is at once feared and respected for his power. To become his initiate is a long process.
For nine whole months Ianthe stays in a special temple where she learns the esoteric knowledge of Sakpata, including secret dances, words and language, and the secret name of Sakpata. Her cheeks are scarified (ritual scarring) to indicate the change and knowledge she has received.
The initiation day
Today Ianthe is wearing a white bonnet, with a cowrie shell necklace, a bright print dress that looks like small pox! Why? Because Sakpata is also the God of pox.
There is excitement in the air and everybody is anticipating the great feast to come, as well as a whole day and night of celebration and ceremony. Everyone is dressed in fine clothes and jewellery. There are people with strange costumes.
We can hear the atmospheric shaking of rattles and rhythmic beating of drums. The village is filled with the chanting and dancing of the priests, priestesses and students.
The dancing and chanting builds in intensity, with women cartwheeling and shimmying low to the ground, until one dancer becomes possessed by Sakpata. She flails and convulses until the god takes full control. This dancer now embodies the god and is treated with the respect that a god commands.
At this point an animal is sacrificed to the Sakpata, and he initiates Ianthe and then leaves. Soon after the feast begins and people enthusiastically begin to eat and celebrate.
Ianthe is now a fully fledged initiate and will have to follow certain rules and laws in her life (specific to her new guardian Sakpata), for instance she may not eat gineau fowl or have sex on market day.
The ritual and process has been very costly to her family, but to not have such a ritual would be unthinkable, as everybody must have a spiritual guardian that they can call on for help.
Take a look at part of a Vodoun ceremony here. This is a ritual to honour one of the gods.
The Magick of Voodoo
So I’ve written a lot about the rituals and ceremonies, but does Voodoo use magic? Yes, and this is most obvious to visitors of Benin at the Fetish Markets, where items of power and potions can be bought, such as parts from dead animals, love and money potions. Part of the scary reputation of Voodoo may come from these markets where things like cured apes heads can be bought (said to aid memory) or dead owls and vultures which are used to counter a curse.
Some people argue that all religions have a dark and a light side, and others say that the bad stuff you can buy at these fetish markets is not actually Voodoo but Bokors (sorcerer) items.
Is Voodoo Cruel to Animals?
I don’t know whether these animals are dead already before they are changed to fetish items, but I have mentioned a lot about animal sacrifice. It’s important to remember that the sacrificed animals are always eaten, and that the conditions animals are kept in are far preferable to those found in the mass farming of the west.
The morals of Voodoo focus on love and support of your family and community, and it is highly valued to be able to protect yourself and those around you when needed. Dishonour and greed are highly frowned upon.
Find out more about Voodoo and Hoodoo around the world, in part 2 of this article, coming soon!
Image Credit: Vodoun.fr