The History and Practice of African Vodun

The Complete History of African Voodoo

Vodun Misunderstood

Vodun dates back thousands of years, but in the 1800’s during slavery in Haiti, living history provides a clearer understanding of its origin. Vodun has many names that it is referred to such as Voodoo, Vodoun, and Vodou. Having Haitian roots, this ancient religion has an impressive following of over 30 million people in Africa today (npr.org). These followers are known as Vodouisants. Vodun is one of the most misunderstood religions today. Like many other religions, there is not one category that the believers of Vodun can be lumped into. This misunderstanding has caused many unfortunate issues over the years. When something is considered mysterious by one, they may use the word “voodoo” to describe it. Since voodoo is considered a “bad” or “evil” religion by many, chaos can erupt. Rather than assume one knows what Vodun is and believe that it is all about Satan and evil worshiping, one would benefit from doing a little research first.

Vodun History

What many do not realize is that Vodun began due to a law that forbade the practice of any African religions and required masters to force their Christian beliefs upon their slaves (livescience.com).  What happened then was the slaves not willing to renounce their strong West African traditions and beliefs combined their religion with some of the beliefs they were forced to follow by their masters with the Roman Catholic church in what is known as syncretism. Syncretism is the process of attempting to combine principles or practices of differing ideas, such as religion.

To continue with their own beliefs and avoiding persecution and or death, the slaves began to adapt by converting a spirit of their own belief to one that would be acceptable by their masters. For example, in their belief, Ogun the Nigerian spirit of ironsmiths, hunting and warfare became Ogou the military leader that fought oppression. Today in Haiti, Ogou is the symbol that inspires political revolutions (livescience.com).

Vodun Practices

Vodun shares similarities as other religions in that it is spiritual. In many religions, the believer defers to a Higher Power, much like Vodun. Though the path they take is not the same, and the Higher Power may go by a different “name”, ultimately the idea is the same. They believe that there are spiritual and divine elements that govern essentially everything from earth, nature, humans, etc. Though in Catholicism the belief is that God is the governing body of all those things, in Vodun being a monotheistic religion as well refer to Bondye “the good god” as their deity. The Ioa or Iwa are those that the Vodouisants accept as lesser beings. These beings are more involved in the day-to-day life than Bondye, and the Iwa are divided into three families, Rada, Petro, and Ghede.

In the Vodun religion, the belief is also that when an individual passes away, their spirit continues to live side by side with the living world. Communication with the dead is done by prayer, animal sacrifice, and drum dancing ceremonies (theculturetrip.com). The believers of this religion hold a high level of wisdom with those that have died and seek their advice and learn from them on a spiritual level. It is not so different than a young child sitting on the lap of their grandparent listening to the stories being shared. The child learns from the wisdom of their elders, as the believers of Vodun learn from the wisdom of those that have left this world and entered the spiritual world.

One very misunderstood practice with Vodun is the Voodoo doll. The belief by those that are unknowledgeable about the religion is that an individual that practices Vodun uses the doll as a tool to cause pain and misery for others. The belief is that the individual attaches “magically” the name of someone that they plan to cause harm to, to the doll. They then treat the doll in an unfavorable fashion, such as sticking pins into it, causing pain to the person that they assigned to the doll. This belief has been popularized by pop culture and Hollywood. This practice, known as hoodoo, is not utilized by the majority in the Vodun religion. In truth the Voodoo doll is used as a dedication to a specific Iwa and used to attract that Iwa’s influence. Other beliefs that Hollywood has attached to Vodun is devil worship, torture, cannibalism, and malevolent magical workings (learnreligions.com).

A lot of the rituals in Vodun includes symbolic drawings and music. As mentioned earlier, drum and dancing are one form of communication with the spirits of the dead. Vodun pulls from its Roman Catholic roots by using the symbolism during the ritual. In Vodun this is known as Veves. Each Iwa has their own symbol with many other symbols associated to them. The Vodouisant will use cornmeal or another such powder to draw the symbols. In the Catholic religion, statues, paintings, and the colored glass windows within the church depict scenes from the Bible and provide the worshipper with a tool to aid in prayer. This is much the same as what the believer of Vodun uses. The symbols they use in their rituals and prayers are tools used to aid them in their communication with the spirits.

Vodun Understood

Vodun or Voodoo as it is more popularly known as, is not some mysterious magical evil practice. It is a true religion formed together by a group of oppressed people that were forced to take on the beliefs of another society. Rather than choosing to give up their religion fully, the slaves combined their beliefs with those of their masters, creating a religion they can be comfortable with. Borrowing from the Roman Catholic roots, Vodouisants (Vodu believers), use symbolism, music and prayer as a means of communication with the Iwa and the spirits of the dead. They have one supreme deity known as Bondye that has a less than hands on relationship with the Vodouisants. In the Vodun religion, wisdom is sought from those that have entered the spirit life.  

Sources:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1666721

https://www.livescience.com/40803-voodoo-facts.html

https://www.learnreligions.com/vodou-an-introduction-for-beginners-95712

Image Credits:

Voodoo Priest [ID 115170295 © Fabian Plock | Dreamstime.com]

Voodoo Statue [ID 22510062 © Waldru | Dreamstime.com]

African Masks [ID 44893571 © Vitali Mamatkazin | Dreamstime.com]

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