National Geographic News, Oct. 21, 2002
Voodoo is widely regarded as a mysterious and sinister practice that’s taboo in many cultures. The mere word conjures images of bloody animal sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins, and dancers gyrating through the hot night to the rhythm of drums.
But experts on voodoo beliefs say there are many misconceptions about the practice, which is performed in various forms worldwide.
“Voodoo is not some kind of dark mystical force, it is simply a legitimate religion,” says anthropologist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who has studied voodoo extensively in the Caribbean nation of Haiti.
Haiti is ostensibly a Catholic country, but voodoo is widely practiced there. In his best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis wrote: “As the Haitians say, the Catholic goes to church to speak about God, the vodounist dances in the hounfour to become God.”
Yet voodoo goes even beyond religion—it’s a world view, Davis says in the National Geographic Channel program Taboo: Voodoo, which airs in the United States on Monday, October 21, at 9 p.m. ET.
“It’s not just a body of religious ideas,” Davis says, “but a notion of how children should be raised, a notion of what education means, an awareness of politics.”
The exact origins of voodoo are unknown, but it’s generally agreed that its roots lie in West Africa. The nation of Benin, once known as Dahomey, is considered the cradle of voodoo, which means “spirit” in the local language.
A “spirit” religion, voodoo likely evolved from ancient traditions of ancestor worship and animism.
Once banned, voodoo is now an official religion in Benin, with about four million adherents in that nation alone. Forms of voodoo are also practiced in other African nations, the Caribbean, South America, New Orleans, and elsewhere.
Voodoo beliefs spread from Africa’s shores to America on slave ships. Subjected to forced labor and expected to adopt a foreign Christian religion in their new land, enslaved Africans turned to the familiar spirits of their ancestors to help them survive a painful transition.
In the process, voodoo underwent major changes.
“After it crosses the ocean, everything is transformed,” says Yvonne Chireau, a professor of religion at Swarthmore College. “It starts out in Africa, but after that journey it is very, very different.”
In the nation of Haiti, slaves from different parts of Africa fused their different beliefs into a new spirit religion. This flexibility persists in voodoo today.
Haitians not only blended different African beliefs, but also added other influences to the religious mix, including Native American traditions and the Catholicism of their conquerors.
The results are unique. Catholic saints, for example, play a part in voodoo but represent quite different figures. St. Peter, for example, is recognized by Haitian vodounists as Papa Legba, the gatekeeper of the spirit world.
Voodoo characteristics are “elastic,” says Davis. “In a sense, it’s very much a lived oral tradition, based on the dynamic charisma of individuals, all against a backdrop of established practices of belief.”
Spirits Among the Living
Voodoo practitioners believe in one god, but they communicate with the divine through thousands of spirits, or “Loa,” which have power over nature and human existence. The souls of the deceased act as intermediaries between God and the living.
The voodoo faithful serve these spirits, which have great powers. To disobey them puts one at risk.
Relationships between the living and the spirits are the essence of voodoo. Voodoo spirits are not distant, nor are they abstractions or symbolic constructs.
Believers have direct contact with the spirit world in a very real sense through the phenomenon of spiritual possession.
“Voodoo is really in many ways a democratic faith,” says Davis, “because the individual not only has direct access to the spirit world, he or she actually becomes the god themselves.”
The ritual of spirit possession can be disconcerting to the uninitiated.
Possessed individuals do the bidding of the spirits during a grueling, exhausting ordeal that they do not remember afterwards. For vodounists, it could happen anywhere or anytime. While priests are more closely linked to the spirits than others, no one knows when the spirits will take over a human body.
“It’s a religion of mysteries. When the spirits incarnate in the bodies, we call this spirit possession,” says Chireau. “It becomes a mystery—how does this happen?” But those who serve the spirits say they know exactly what is happening. The spirits walk among them by taking over a human body.
“In spirit possession, they believe absolutely that the soul of the living has been momentarily displaced by the God, so that the human being becomes the god,” says Davis.
Like other religions, voodoo is a guiding force in communities where it is practiced. Voodoo priests are prominent and respected figures. Because of their strong connections with the spirits, they are expected to perform many social functions. Spirits are called on to heal the sick, help the needy, and provide practical solutions to life’s problems.