UNDERSTANDING VOODOO (Voudou)
Updated: Mar 3
HAITIAN VOODOO IS BORN
Vexes, voodoo dolls and zombies come to mind when we hear the word voodoo. Mainstream media and pop culture introduced us to these symbols but there's much more to this historic Haitian religion than you may know. Voodoo is a syncretic religion meaning it's derived from different religions. It's categorized as an Afro-Carribbean religion and derived from African tribal religions mixed with the French held religious beliefs of Catholicism and Protestant. The french ruled Haiti during this time and brought over slaves from Africa in the early 1700's. These slaves were forced to denounce their religion and take up the teachings of Catholicism. The slaves quickly learned to secretly preserve their own religion during their captivity by incorporating their own beliefs within the Catholic religion. This created a new religion (voodoo) that enabled slaves to hold onto their religion in their own way. Voodoo sustained them during a very suppressed and torturous time in their lives.
Fast forward to the 1790s. These years represented a time of liberation from slavery. A series of brutal voodoo inspired revolts were launched by the slaves and resulted in the expulsion of the French from Haiti. This led to religious freedom for the new inhabitants and they were now able to openly practice this new form of religion. The French that left Haiti sailed to America and settled in New Orleans with their english speaking slaves. This would begin the introduction of this new voodoo culture in the United States. The french settlers reported that vodouisants (voodoo practitioners) were very vile and evil which is why voodoo has a bad connotation. The label of 'Evil' adhered to the voodoo religion throughout the ages and people continued to blame the religion for unfortunate events. Even as recently as 2010 voodoo was blamed for an earthquake that rocked Haiti. Oppositioners claimed it was the result of the powerful ceremonies held by the slaves hundreds of years ago.
BELIEFS, RITUALS & PRACTICES
Followers of the religion are referred to as vodouisants and often label themselves as Catholic. Vodouisants believe like most other religions that there is a wordly struggle between good and evil and they worship one powerful God by the name of Bondye'. Bondye' is considered untouchable by the practitioners and they primarily pray to him and worship him indirectly through other spirits called 'Iwa' which are good but lesser deities that revolve around and affect much of the voudousaints daily lives. Vodouisants proclaim if there is one man in a room then there are at least 20 "iwas" there as well. It's widely believed by the practitioners that every life event is controlled by one or more Iwas and pray to Bondye' and the Iwa for continued protection. Believers will often leave offerings to these deities in exchange for prayer requests and safety from evil. During religious ceremonies altars, drums, dance and song are vital to connecting with the Iwa. It's not uncommon for the participants to ask for these deities to possess someone so that they may interact directly with the deities or spirits from past family members. It's believed that these Iwa can predict the future or give advice through the posession process. The posession is considered a wanted and beautiful experience within this ceremony. It's believed the Iwa, have a home amongst all who are deceased. The realm of these spirits is referred to as Vilokan and is located in a dark isolated forest guarded by Iwa Legba, and other deities that head all of the Iwa. In order to summon any Iwa the practitioners must appease Legba with an offering of food, tobacco or candy. The practitioners also hold sacrificial rituals in which an animal is given up to the Iwa for sustenance and after will be eaten by the ceremony participants.
Curses are often brought up when speaking of the voodoo religion. Unfortunately the original voodoo religion was tarnished when it reached the Americas. This is where a watered down variant of the original voodoo religion became popularized and commercialized by voodoo dolls, curses and vexes where spells can make someone love you or a hex can be cast upon your enemy. Worse yet, claiming they could be turned to zombies. The origins of voodoo were never meant to harm, only to prosper and heal.
Voodoo today is elusive in Haiti. It's there but it's not. It's imbedded in their music, medicine, cosmology and arts however its practices are becoming taboo and shrinking everyday. Any practices are kept quiet and not to be discussed. Catholicism has become the predominate religious choice amongst the people of Haiti. Voodoo ceremonies have become targeted by hate crimes and the majority of voodoo practices have been driven out. The only area of Haiti where voodoo dominates is in Île-à-Vache a remote island off the southwest coast of Haiti. The island has only two medical clinics for over 14,000 residents so voodoo priest Jeom Frichenel Sisius is a spiritual leader, doctor and midwife. He claims to possess skills to cure all from sickness to haunted houses and everything in between. His potions, medicines and other concoctions are in a shed guarded by skulls and nzambi (zombies) painted on the walls. Sisius touts he can fix any headache or ailment if the clinics cannot. He admits xrays and mammograms are out of his wheelhouse.
In the United States voodoo has taken on its own life form. Its roots are derived from haitian voodoo but there's an added charm and mystery that's been cultivated into the ever changing religion. Here is where we get most of the stories of hexes, vexes, voodoo dolls, and other forms of modern rituals. Priests and priestesses speckle the southeast region of the U.S. predicting futures and promising patrons love, health wealth and healing. It has become a huge source of commerce in New Orleans where the original haitian settlers brought over the religion from Haiti in the late 1700's. Throughout the centuries it's been revamped, developed and tweaked into a new modern form of voodoo religion but its foundation always remains its original origins. Voodoo has a mysticism and curiosity that can draw people in so its very important not to be duped into novelties or services that offer nothing other than a fake facade. Any real voodoo priest or priestess should have a working knowledge of the voodoo religion, culture and origins.
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