By Vexen Crabtree 2016
|Links: Pages on Voodoo, Other Religions|
|Adherent||practitioner of Voodoo|
|Adherents||practitioner of Voodoo|
|Heritage||African traditional theology|
|Area of Origin||Africa|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
A traditional religion from Western Africa with an ethical focus on combating greed and promoting honour. It is based on the worship of spirits that are loyal to a monotheistic1 deistic (non-interventionist) creator god. It is more correctly known as Vodun, although other titles include Vodoun, Voudou, and Sevi Lwa. "The name is traceable to an African word for 'spirit'. Vodun's roots go back to the West African Yoruba people who lived in 18th and 19th century Dahomey. That country occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and Nigeria"2. When West Africans were forcibly taken to Haiti and other islands in the West Indies as slaves, their beliefs spread with them1,2, and also to South America and the Caribbean region in general3. Voodoo was suppressed and its followers persecuted1 by Christian powermongers, and it was forced underground, with many believers merely pretending to be Christian, and practicing Voodoo in secret1,4,5. As a result of this, Voodoo priests were well-placed to orchestrate and inspire slave revolts. It is now acknowledged that Voodoo merged African beliefs with re-interpreted Christian saints and symbols3,1, but also that Christianity abused and mis-represented Voodoo, causing long term damage to its reputation. There are up to 60 million Voodoo practitioners worldwide, with about 16 million in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria1.
Voodoo is a traditional religion based on ritual and magic6 centered on relationships with multiple pseudo-gods, spirits and ancestors, which for most people have no particular structure nor hierarchy6, but the good and friendly ones are loyal to Mahu, a benevolent deistic (non-interventionist) creator god7. Although nominally a monotheistic religion, it is the spirits and saints that are of importance1. Dance, magic and ritual are all important elements of Voodoo practice4, alongside elements of Shamanism (wherein spirits are appeased or recruited for the benefit of the community)8.
“Among people who are nominally Christian in Latin America and the Caribbean, there are many who also participate in ceremonies and rituals that can be traced back to African religions. When slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas, they took their religions with them. During the period of slavery, African tribal gods were disguised a Catholic saints and could in this way continue to be worshipped. Rites and ceremonies were held in secret.”
“'Voodoo is everything to me, it helps me get whatever I want,' says John Togbé, a school teacher. 'If I have a problem I go to the voodoo chief, who makes sacrifices for me, and afterwards my problem is resolved. For example, my wife and I couldn't have children for many years. I asked the spirits for a child, and three years later my child was born.”
At the time when Voodoo was being spread from Africa to Haiti, and to elsewhere worldwide, it was also simultaneously suppressed and forced underground by Christian powermongers for the full colonial period and beyond. For example "Voodoo was once banned in Benin" by Christian president Matheius Kérékou "yet voodoo believers practised in secret, and eventually the ban was lifted"7. Even where Christianity has been imposed on top of vodun culture, it has survived. "The Christians go to church on Sunday", says Na Honoun, a voodoo priestess: "but they come to see us the rest of the week"7.
“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.”
“The result of that was a series of revolts, first by the people of color in 1790 - met with brutal repression - then by the slaves in 1791 (organized by Boukman, a voodoo priest).”
pasture.ecn.purdue.edu/~agenhtml/agenmc/haiti/history.html. Accessed 1999.
Voodoo is still a hidden religion, often considered counter-cultural, and often practiced behind the scenes of the public images of other religions. For example, Luisah Teish is a well-known African-American, born in New Orleans, USA, who calls herself a "Louisiana Catholic", which is "a polite expression for one who follows Voodoo behind a thin veneer of Christianity"4.
Vodun is still practiced by the majority of Haiti even though the majority also call themselves Christian. "It was given official status as a national religion in 2003 by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then Haitian president"1. Haitian Voodoo is has some features that distinguishing it from African Voodoo. The success of the hope-inspiring slave revolts was directly related to the secretive and suppressed nature of the Vodun religion within the slave culture. The underground religion naturally expanded to include underground abolitionist activism and played an inspirational and functional role, directly facilitating underground societies and powerful leaders, something which no other anti-slave movement did. This series of revolts led to Toussaint L'Ouverture and his successes in the region, which inspired and fuelled abolitionist movements worldwide.
“Some historians say that voodoo's bad image in the world is because Haitian slaves used it as a form of protest; it gave them a secret place where they could foment revolt against their masters.”
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
(1980) Voodoo: Africa's Secret Power. Published by Perlinger.
Murray et al.
(2009) Hammond Atlas of World Religions. Published by Hammond World Atlas Corporation, Langenscheidt Publishing Group, New York, USA. Contributing authors: Stuart A.P. Murray; Robert Huber; Elizabeth Mechem; Sarah Novak; Devid West Reynolds, PhD; Tricia Wright; Thomas Cussans. A hardback book.