Ideas such as curses, pin dolls, black magic, and skeleton-painted priests are indistinguishably linked with the popular perception of Voodoo. A combination of movies, fictional novels, and comic book stories have helped ingrain the notion that Voodoo is an evil, mysterious religion, stemming from the darker sides of Africa. Many believe it has been used to bring about early deaths of unwelcome researchers and to resurrect the zombified bodies of dead believers. Although, those who practice Voodoo say these rumors and myths have been born out of ignorance and misguided fear. Voodoo, so they say, is a peaceful religion like the Catholic faith and they state it should cause no feelings of anxiety.
Voodoo is also known as Vodun, Vodoun, Voudou, or Sevi Lua, and originated in the west African countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. The word ‘Voodoo’ itself, is an ancient African word for ‘Great Spirit’, and the religion is believed to date back many millennia. The developed world first knew of it was when slave traders started capturing African workers in the sixteenth century and deporting them to the West Indies. Upon arriving on the islands, the slaves were forcibly invested in the Catholic faith, but as there were few facilities for them to practice this new religion, many slipped back into their native traditions.
The Voodoo religion was founded on the idea of one supreme God – an unknowable but almighty force. Under him were a network of ‘Loa’ or spirits, which are broadly equivalent to the Christian concept of patron saints. Each Loa depicts a distinct aspect of life and possesses certain qualities. For example, if a farmer was concerned about his crops, then he would focus his worship on the Loa known as ‘Zaka’, the spirit of agriculture. Despite the similarities between these African faiths, and their own, the French and Spanish conquerors refused to accept that these enslaved savages could have their own indigenous religion. With tremendous fear that they were worshipping the devil, Voodoo was banned, and slave leaders and priests were beaten into confessing that their rituals were of evil nature.
Despite all this, the Voodoo faith continued in secret, particularly in Haiti. Over time it even adopted certain aspects of the Catholic religion, as descendants of the original slaves spread throughout the Caribbean. The beliefs of West Indian workers mixed with voodoo practices of slaves taken to the American southlands and a center for the faith was soon established in New Orleans with a fertile blend of French, African, and Spanish cultures. In modern times, roughly 15% of New Orleans residents, and 60 million people worldwide practice Voodoo. In 1996 it was made the official faith of Benin. Despite the official recognition, there is still a great deal of fear and mystery attached to Voodoo rituals.
The temple of the Voodoo faith is referred to as a Hounfour, and the leader of the ceremony is a male priest called a Houngan, or a female priest called a Mambo. Within the temple, at the center is a highly decorated altar and a post used to communicate with spirits. A feast takes place before the ceremony, and a specific pattern relating to the worshipping of the Loa is outlined on the temple floor. Dancing and chanting accompanied by beats from rattles and religious drums called Tamboulas beings. One of the dancers is possessed by the Loa, by entering a trance, and excerpting behavior just as the Loa would. An animal, such as a goat, sheep, dog, or chicken, is sacrificed and their blood is collected to be used to satisfy the hunger of the Loa.
While these rites and rituals are used for purposes such as guidance and help, there are also some unsavory practices. Voodoo black magic is performed by Caplatas or Bokors who place curses, and stick pins in Voodoo dolls in an attempt to cause people pain and suffering. However, this use of Voodoo is rare, and the fair is promoted by its followers as being a wonderful way to understand the human condition and the world around us. Even though some of the practices seem a bit unorthodox, are they truly much different from evangelist rituals, or archaic Catholic rites? As with most of the mysteries concerning humans, a bit of tolerance and understanding seems to go a long way in the search for the truth.