Voodoo (Vodou)

African origins

West African Vodou, just as all indigenous African Religions, has its primary emphasis on the ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest- and priestesshood which are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are gods and goddesses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti and in many parts of Togo; Gu, ruling iron and smithcraft; Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.

European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa suppressed Vodun as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodou deities are born to each African clan-group, and its clergy is central to maintaining the moral, social, and political order and ancestral foundation of its villagers, it proved to be impossible to eradicate the religion. Today in West Africa, the Vodou religion is estimated to be practiced by over 30 million people. Vodoun became the official religion of Benin in 1996.

Both American and Caribbean variations of the religion center on ancestral spirits and two main pantheons of Lwas; tribal relationships are de-emphasized.

Word Origin, Usage

Voodoo (Vodun or Vudun in Benin and Togo; also Vodou in Haiti; Vodon, Voudoun, Voudou, or other phonetically equivalent spellings) is a transliteration of the French words vous tous (pronounced voo-too), meaning 'you all'. The name vodu comes from the West African language, Fon meaning 'spirit' or 'deity'.

In the text that accompanied the UCLA Fowler Museum's nationwide exhibition - Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou; editor and folklorist Donald Cosentino suggested that the word vodun first appeared in print during 1658 - written "by the Allada (Fon) ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain...in his Doctrina Christiana (Cosentino, 1995: 29).

Until the early twentieth century the name was spelled "Voudou" by most Louisiana writers. "Voodoo" is an Americanized spelling that began to appear during the occupation of Haiti by American Marines, and was applied to the practice in both Haiti and Louisiana. The word has acquired the negative connotation of black magic...Many practitioners simply call it "the work" and refer to themselves as "workers" (2001:37).

The word Voodoo is used to describe the Afro-creole tradition of New Orleans, Vodou is used to describe the Haitian Vodou Tradition, while Vudon and Vodun and Vodoun are used to describe the deities honored in the Brazilian Jeje (Ewe) nation of Candomble as well as West African Vodoun, and in the African diaspora. Voodoo or Hoodoo also refer to African-American folk spirituality of the southeastern USA, with roots in West African traditional or "folk" spirituality. When the word Vodou/Vodoun is capitalized, it denotes the Religion proper. When the word is used in small caps, it denotes folk spirituality, or the actual deities honored in each respective tradition.

Survival in the Southern US

The versions of Voodoo which survived in the Southeastern USA, were connected with Christian mystics,. in the minds of rural African Americans. Segregation minimized the number of bi-lingual African Americans (those who spoke basilect and fluent acrolect), and at the same time minimized the number of whites who could translate basilect well enough to discover Voodoo in the spoken, sung, or written words of middle class, working class or working-poor African Americans. In isolated African American communities, such as the Georgia Sea Islands or in the Mississippi Delta, Voodoo lore could be freely referenced and practices, at least the more subtle ones, were more public.

Scholars debate the variations of Voodoo, how they have survived, how much they have changed, and to what extent Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular were used as covers to enable the survival of Voodoo. A common saying is that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic, 20% Protestant, and 100% Vodou. Thus the Catholic contribution to Haitian Vodou is quite noticeable.

However, in the United States the story may be a little different, depending upon which scholarship you read. Some scholars believe confusion about Voodoo in the USA arises because there is a widespread system of African American folk belief and practice known as Hudu or more popularly as hoodoo. The similarity of the words hoodoo and Voodoo notwithstanding, hoodoo may have tenuous connections to organized religion like Vodou, but hoodoo may be an integral part of the Vodoun religion in West Africa and arguably throughout all of Africa. Some aspects of hoodoo may be derived primarily from Congo and Angolan practices of Central Africa, and may retain elements of the traditions and practices that arose among Bantu language speakers.

Today, possibly due to the suppression of the Voodoo and Hoodoo traditions and Vodoun religion in the United States, most hoodoo 'rootworkers' are members of African American Protestant churches, but when hoodoo is compared to some of the African religions in the diaspora, the closest parallel is Cuban Palo, a survival of Congo religious beliefs.

In summary, Haitian Vudou is derived from West African religious traditions and was retained in modified form by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean who were captive in a mostly Catholic population. However, in the USA the Vodoun religion is derived from largely the Ewe and other West and central African groups [citation needed].

Myths and misconceptions

Public relations-wise, Vodou has come to be associated in the popular mind with such phenomena as "zombies" and "voodoo dolls." While there is evidence of zombie creation, it is a minor phenomenon within rural Haitian culture and not a part of the Vodou religion as such. Such things fall under the auspices of the bokor or sorcerer rather than the priest of the Loa.

The practice of sticking pins in dolls has history in European folk magic, but its exact origins are unclear. How it became known as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of what has come to be called New Orleans Voodoo, which is a local variant of hoodoo, is a mystery. Some speculate that it was used as a means of self defense to intimidate superstitious slave owners. This practice is not unique to New Orleans voodoo, however, and has as much basis in European-based magical devices such as the poppet and the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa. These are in fact power objects, what in Haiti would be referred to as pwen, rather than magical surrogates for an intended target of sorcery whether for boon or for bane. Such voodoo dolls are not a feature of Haitian religion, although dolls intended for tourists may be found in the Iron Market in Port au Prince right next to other custom t-shirts and souvenirs from the area. The practice became closely associated with the Vodou religions in the public mind through the vehicle of horror movies and popular novels.

There is a practice in Haiti of nailing crude poppets with a discarded shoe on trees near the cemetery to act as messengers to the otherworld, which is very different in function from how poppets are portrayed as being used by voodoo worshippers in popular media and imagination, ie. for purposes of sympathetic magic towards another person. Another use of dolls in authentic Vodou practice is the incorporation of plastic doll babies in altars and objects used to represent or honor the spirits, or in pwen, which recalls the aforementioned use of bocio and nkisi figures in Africa.

Although Voodoo is often associated with Satanism, Satan is purely an Abrahamic belief and has not been incorporated in Voodoo tradition. When Mississippi Delta folksongs mix references to Voodoo and to Satan, what is being expressed is social pain such as from racism, which is couched in Christian terms and blamed on the devil. Those who practice voodoo do not worship or invoke the blessings of a devil.




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