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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Supernatural Sunday - A brief look at Voodoo

Let's start off by saying that if you've learnt about Voodoo from the movies, pretty much everything you know is wrong.For the purposes of this post I'm sticking to the New Orleans spelling - traditionalists from Benin, considered the cradle of Vodou, are likely to use that spelling.

Hollywood, once again, has a lot to answer for. So do a lot of fiction writers, but movies such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart  didn't help. Neither have the multitude of t.v. series that feature voodoo as a story line, fun though they were - everything from the Twilight Zone to Relic Hunter have added to the misconceptions.
This is NOT a voodoo doll...

Sticking pins in dolls, so vital to the Hollywood conception of voodoo, is actually alien to everything the religion stands for. There are dolls used in voodoo; placed on altars with a petition to the loa, or as a focusing object. Sticking pins in human shaped images known as poppets is a form of sympathetic magic from a totally different system of European magic, and a traditional voodoo worshiper wouldn't be be very impressed with these at all. (It should be noted that "voodoo cursing dolls" can be found anywhere from the net to physical shops in New Orleans and other places. This is part of an ancient and honored tradition found in cultures world-wide, known as "Fleece the Tourist.)

This IS a voodoo doll.  A Marry Me voodoo doll, found on www.voodooshop.com

Like any long-established religion, Voodoo has a dark side. Bokors will perform black magic - i.e. negative magic, that will harm as well as heal - known as "working with both hands." However, mainstream voodoo practitioners have a  strict moral code that eliminates pesky little things like human sacrifice, another Hollywood/schlock horror staple.

The idea of human sacrifice as a voodoo rite stems from fear and misinformation.

Voodoo has strong ties to Catholicism, with the belief in one supreme being and a pantheon of loa, or spirit forces that are addressed and gifted by worshipers. However, rites and gifts can change regionally, as well as being dependent on the needs of the petitioner. Voodoo practised in the mainland USA is very different to Voodoo practiced in Haiti or Africa, for example. It's also worth noting that the title of Houngan or Mambo (equivalent in many ways to a priest or priestess) is often passed down through the family line.

The tradition of animal sacrifice is often viewed with repulsion by outsiders, and a particularly sore point for animal rights activists. It's been held up as a symbol of satanism  at work in voodoo by a number of westerners. Animal sacrifice, however has been an integral part of the majority of western religions and can quite easily be traced through the Christian-Judaic bible. As the animal killed in these rituals is usually cooked and eaten by the people attending this ceremony, it's probably a lot less wasteful than what my ancestors used to practice several centuries ago. (Judging by the horror stories that escape traditional abattoirs, it's also probably a lot more humane.)

The concept of the soul is a vital aspect to voodoo, as is inviting the loa, considered a form of benign possession. This can be more closely compared to mediumship than the christian theory of demonic possession, although the actions of the loa can be extremely energetic while riding the host, depending on the loa that turns up.
The vever, often stunningly intricate patterns drawn with handfuls of powder or flour, both represents the loa to be invoked as well as serving as a focal point and occasional altar.

Vever for Ghede, the family of spirits that  embody death and fertility.

Despite the dark connotations, thanks mainly to western media and misrepresentations, voodoo as a religion is  very focused on light and enlightening the soul. A high number of rituals and requests focus on healing, and helping, both the practioner and their loved ones. With this in mind, it's a sad reflection on society that most voodoo worshipers in the west hide their religious beliefs through fear of victimization by their neighbors and employers. Even Haiti only recognized this ancient religion officially in 2003, leading to fairly predictable howls of moral outrage from a variety of christian groups across the world.

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J H Sked is the author of WolfSong & Basement Blues.
You can find WolfSong on Amazon, Sony  e-bookstore, Nook and Smashwords. Basement Blues is on Amazon and Smashwords