Vodun : A Misunderstood Tradition
Vodun (Vodoun, Voudou, Voodoo, Sevi Lwa) ; is more commonly known as Voodoo (vû’dû) to the general populace. The term ‘Vodun’ is derived from the god ‘Vodun’, who was worshiped by West African Yoruba men and women who lived in 18th and 19th century Dahomey. However, it’s origins in Africa date back over 6,000 years.
Currently over 60 million people world-wide practice Vodun. South America has sprouted a few similar religions as well, such as Umbanda, Quimbanda, and Candomble.
Vodun has been openly practiced in Benin since a democratic government took ordinance in 1989; roughly 60 percent of the populace follows this faith. Vodun was officially recognized as Benin’s official faith in 1996-FEB. It’s also followed by the majority of the adults from Haiti ; Whom could be considered nominally Catholic.
So, with this being such a major religion, how exactly did genuine Vodun, practiced all throughout Benin, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Haiti, Togo, and other such countries begin being ostracized by western countries?
“Many Priests were either killed or imprisoned, and their shrines destroyed, because of the threat they posed to Euro-Christian/Muslim dominion. This forced some of the Dahomeans to form Vodou Orders and to create underground societies, in order to continue the veneration of their ancestors, and the worship of their powerful gods.” ~ 100 African religions before slavery & colonization – Akan Takruri
Vodun From a Western Viewpoint:
Slaves were baptized in catholic tradition upon arriving in Haiti and nearby surrounding areas, however, there wasn’t sufficient Christian infrastructure present throughout the early 19th century to keep up the religion. This resulted in most slaves following their initial indigenous religion. They practiced in secret, often while also attending mass regularly.
An inaccurate and breathtaking novel (S. St. John, “Haiti along with the Black Republic”) was composed in 1884. It explained Vodun as a deeply bad faith, and also comprised lurid descriptions of individual sacrifice, cannibalism, etc., a number of which was pulled from Vodun priests by torture. This book grabbed the imagination of people beyond the West Indies, and had been responsible for a lot of the misunderstanding and anxiety that’s current now. Hollywood discovered this a rich resource for Voodoo screen performances. Horror movies started in the 1930’s and continue now to decipher Vodun. It’s only since the late 1950’s that exact studies by anthropologists were published.
Many of the evil connotations involving Vodun may have originated in the 1700s when slaves began to outnumber their overseers ; and as the African population grew, so did the fear of revolt, as well as the fear of their culture. It has been documented that Africans openly practicing Vodun around this time were often put to death as an example to the rest. Government laws were even enacted in some parts of the USA to disallow slaves from performing night dances, and therefor preventing them from practicing their native religion.
Vodun Beliefs & Sects
Vodun, like Christianity, has many unique traditions. Each sect follows a different spiritual path and worships a marginally distinct pantheon of spirits, also known as Loa. The term means “mystery” in the Yoruba language.
Yoruba traditional belief comprised a supreme God Olorun, who’s distant and unknowable. He authorized a diminished God Obatala to produce the world and all life forms. A conflict between both Gods contributed to Obatala’s temporary banishment.
There are also scores and scores of smaller spirits, which are not a part of the traditional pantheon. Those that derived from Dahomey are known as Rada; Spirits that have been added later are frequently deceased leaders from the world and so are known as Petro. Some notable mentions include:
- Agwe: Spirit of the Sea
- Aida Wedo: Rainbow Spirit
- Ayza: The Protector
- Baka: An Evil Spirit with Shape-shifting Abilities
- Baron Samedi: Guard of the Grave (death)
- Dambala (Or Damballah-wedo): Serpent Soul
- Erinle: Soul of the Forest
- Ezili (Or Erzulie): Feminine Soul of love
- Mawu Lisa: Soul of Production
- Ogou Balanjo: Soul of Recovery
- Ogun (Or Ogu Bodagris): Soul of Warfare
- Osun: Soul of Recovery Streams
- Sango (Or Shango): Soul of Storms
- Yemanja: Feminine Soul of Water
- Zaka (Or Oko): Soul of Technology
There are many similarities between the loa and Orthodox Catholicism.
Both groups not only share the belief in a supreme being as the centerfold of their religions, but both belief in an afterlife as well. Other shared beliefs include the idea of a soul, an afterlife, demons, and spirits, but perhaps most interesting is the shared basis of rituals involving the consumption of blood, or flesh, which is something commonly, or maybe even intentionally overlooked by Christian enthusiasts.
Followers of Vodun believe that every individual has a spirit that’s made up of 2 components: a gros bon ange or “large guardian angel”, as well as a ti bon angeor ; or “small guardian angel”. The ti bon angeor allegedly leaves the body during deep sleep, only to return to following morning.
These Vodun practitioners hold a similar role as Buddhist monks do in the corresponding societies. Not only providing spiritual protection, but providing psychological assistance and general advice to their tribes.
Ritualistic Side of Vodun:
Vodun holds a somewhat unique theme involving the dead and the undead.
The general basis of Vodun rituals was to make contact with a specified soul, and obtain their favor by performing rituals, or performing animal sacrifices. These rituals were performed in hopes of assistance, and good health or fortune. They believe humans and Loa rely on each other, trading food and substance for aid and protection. Typically these rituals were used to celebrate positive events, to escape bad fortune, or used in celebration or grief, such as birth, death, or marriage.
A Vodun temple is referred to as a hounfour (or even humfort). In its center is just a poteau-mitan ; a rod in which the God and spirits communicate with common folk. An alter would likely be elaborately decorated with candles, images of Christian saints, or emblematic objects linked to the Loa. The corresponding rituals usually contained a few of the following elements:
- Production of a veve ; a blueprint of flour or cornmeal splattered along the floor begins many rituals in the Loa tribes.
- Violent shaking of drums, chanting, stomping, or similar noises used to produce a feeling of trance among the participants.
- Tribal dances, occasionally including spiritual possession, usually performed by the houngan or mambos.
- Live animal sacrifice, such as goat, sheep, dogs, or similar species. Often times the blood from the slain animals will be collected into a vessel and then drank by the spiritual practitioners of the ceremony.
- Large feasts, which were typically uncommon during other times
Relationship to Bò
There is often confusion between Vodun and Bò. (which is also known as O bò) Bò is an occult practice which involves priests known as Bòkônon or Bòkôtônon, in contrary to the Vodun priests and priestesses, who are called Vodunon and Vodunsi, respectively. Although it is common practice in Hollywood to display Vodun priests casting spells on other individuals, in reality, this is not the case. Bò practitioners do often call upon specific spirits of the corresponding pantheon but there are many clear distinctions which separate these two religions. The confusion probably began due to recognizable elements of Vodun being present within traditional Bò rituals.
Much of what is thought to be Vodun by the general populace is a misconstrued segmentation of Bò and European witchcraft.
Haitan Voodoo originated from slaves who combined practices from their traditional religion, Vodun, with elements of Roman Catholicism. Slaves during this time were often subjected to a process called syncretism. Circa 1685, a law was enacted, mandating master to convert their slaves to Christianity within eight days of their arrival. Slavery was even praised by the Catholic Church, as in their eyes, it gave the slaves a path to God. With all this being the case, naturally many of their spirits became associated with Christian saints, and depictions of the bible.
“Many of the African spirits were adapted to their new milieu in the New World. Ogun, for instance, the Nigerian spirit of ironsmiths, hunting and warfare took on a new persona… He became Ogou, the military leader who has led phalanxes into battle against oppression. In Haiti today, Ogou inspires many political revolutions that oust undesirable oppressive regimes.” – Leslie Desmangles
In the early 1800s though, slavery was ended in Haiti. Vodun practitioners were demonized and treated like lesser citizens, accused of practicing dark magic. Similar to the infamous witch hunts that happened between the 16th and 18th centuries. In 1889, a book by the name of ‘Hayti, or the Black Republic’ convinced much of the world that Voodoo practitioners were cannibals, and committed sins of human sacrifice. To this day, many Christians still believe this, and regard Voodoo as ‘Black Magic’, or even use the term as a negative annotation. George H.W. Bush used this term to attack Ronald Reagen’s monetary policies, and regarded it as “voodoo economics”
Poppet Dolls & Vodun
Today, many people signify Voodoo dolls with the African Vodun religion, but this isn’t quite accurate. The true root of this cultural phenomenon is believed to be Egypt. Circa 1100 BC, the enemies of Pharaoh Ramses III used wax images of him to bring about his death. Later, these sorts of beliefs traveled to Europe, where they became the Poppet Doll. In Greek culture, a poppet doll called a kolossoi was recorded as being used for sympathetic magic, pin sticking, and even to restrain ghosts, or spirits. The Greek Poet Theocritus even wrote about burning wax poppet dolls to perform love spells. Of course, they were also used as puppets in theater, but in a parallel view to tarot cards, they had both esoteric, as well as theatrical components.
The confusion probably lies in the fact that African slaves brought to America a similar looking doll called a Bocio.
However, Bocio dolls didn’t represent people, and they were never pricked with pins. African religious views were based around animism, and they used these dolls as mediums, to speak to the spirits that they worshiped. After their culture was merged with Roman Catholicism, some of the Haiti practitioners were also introduced to poppet dolls, and thus, the tale was born.