COTONOU : Draped in animal skins with bones and fetish charms clattering, thousands of west Africans, Americans and Caribbean islanders are trooping into tiny Benin ahead of Saturday’s annual voodoo festival in the southern town of Ouidah.
Born at the end of the 16th century on the banks of the Mono river that flows between Benin and Togo , voodoo rituals have been practiced by some two-thirds of Benin ‘s 6.7 million people for generations, according to government figures.
Be they Christian or Muslim, from the Fon or Yoruba ethnic groups, devotees of the cult of “vodouns,” or “spirits” in the Fon language, continue to practice the spells, chants and mystic divinations of their faith.
The spirits are honored at shrines built in temples or homes known as legbas — small mounds of earth or clay used as vessels for the offerings of alcohol or the blood of animals sacrificed to the spirit gods.
The gods number in the hundreds and represent virtually everything from the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water, to animals such as bats and snakes, as well as pestilence, war and disease.
With a view to preserving the centuries-old practice and protecting its inherent cultural elements, Benin in August 1998 designated January 10 as a national holiday to celebrate the traditional religion.
The holiday has expanded beyond the borders of the tiny west African state, welcoming voodoo-practicing Togolese, Nigerians and Ghanaians to the free-wheeling festival and traditional ceremony at Ouidah, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) west of the main Beninese city, Cotonou.
Descendants of African slaves from Brazil , Haiti , Cuba and the United States will join their west African cousins for Saturday’s ceremonies, adding their own interpretations of the spirit magic that has been a popular form of worship for centuries.
Organized by Benin ‘s main voodoo leader Daagbo Hounon Houna, the festival begins with the clatter of tambourines and continues with hours of incantations by high priests of the religion, who fall into deep trances.
Voodoo devotees participate in frenzied dances that loop around the “gate of no return” on Ouidah’s beach, from where hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped into slavery in the Caribbean or the Americas .
Many second- or third-generation Haitians, Brazilians and Cubans use the annual voodoo festival as a chance for a pilgrimage home to defy the moniker attached to the port by slave-traders as they bullied their charges into submission.
Benin ‘s voodoo culture morphed into Candomble in Brazil , a still-vibrant polytheistic religion introduced some 200 years ago by Yoruba slaves deported from the Gulf of Guinea region.
The South American giant became home to as many as four million African slaves after the 16th century, most of whom were forced to abandon their “idolatrous” culture by Portuguese colonizers.
To maintain their cultural independence and escape persecution by the colonizers, voodoo practitioners sought to blend their worship of the “orixas” spirits with devotions to Catholic spirits in a unique, if unusual, syncretism.
More than 100 years since the abolition of slavery, some 45 percent of Brazil ‘s population of 170 million is of African descent. They have created an estimated 73,000 different “terreiros”, or sacred areas set aside for Candomble worship.
Voodoo has also put down roots in the United States , most notably in the bayous of the southern state of Louisiana.
Louisiana ‘s Creole-influenced main city New Orleans has boasted a voodoo museum since 1972 and the tomb of Marie Laveau, a famous high priestess born in 1794, is almost as popular as that of the famous blues singers buried nearby.