In the name of God/s, part 12: Vodun

  • Founder/s: unknown (generally believed to be the Fon ethnic group in west Africa)
  • Approximate age: estimated to be between 6,000 & 10,000 years (original African form), 300-400 years (modern Americanised forms)
  • Place of origin: west Africa definitely – generally believed to be Benin, but later “recreated” in Haiti and spread to other parts of the Caribbean & mainland Americas
  • Holy book/s: n/a?
  • Original language of holy book/s: n/a?
  • Demonym of adherents: Vodouists/ Vodouisants/ Servants of the Spirits
  • Approximate number of current global adherents: 80,000,000
  • Place of worship name/s: n/a???

Depending on where it’s practised the name is also written as Vaodou, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Vúdú, Vodú and most commonly Voodoo.

Although I know very little about this faith, I know it’s a lot more than zombies, drinking chicken blood and sticking needles in magic dolls (In fact, knowing the history of colonialism I wouldn’t be surprised if these were all European rather than African practices! According to some zombies were really enslaved Africans being drugged so heavily their free will was suppressed). Due to the extreme (& deliberate) misunderstanding throughout the centuries I will briefly list its key features:

  • A supreme but uninvolved god called Bondye (ie. deism) or Mawu
  • Innumerable spirits (loa/ lwa) who are called upon in place of Bondye, and can either help or hinder human affairs
  • Possession by spirits of their followers, which are usually benevolent
  • Souls (of the living) which can leave the body during possessions or dreams
  • Belief in magic (good is white, bad is red)
  • A set of ethics passed down from generation to generation dealing with all areas of human life like politics, education, child-rearing, etc.
  • Traditional medical practices (in common with most African faiths)

There are effectively 3 “sects” of Vodun – the original Wafrican form (with some Christian influence), Haitian & Louisiana. All 3 are syncretic in this day and age, sharing various degrees of original Wafrican spiritual & cultural practices, Roman Catholicism, Freemasonry, and Taíno* beliefs.  This means that it potentially has the same good & bad points of all these worldviews. I hesitate to refer to it as a single religion due to its antiquity and range of ethnic groups who practised it. For simplicity’s sake I will nonetheless, and for the rest of this post I will refer to the African form by default unless stated otherwise.

* Taínos are a subgroup of the Arawaks, a native pre-Columbian American tribe living in what’s now Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti & Puerto Rico. They’re generally believed to be extinct but attempts are being made to revive them and their ways. 

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I will refrain from judging it too harshly as it’s so badly misunderstood and I’ve never met anyone who can tell me about it from an insider perspective. Nevertheless my opinion on its “tenets” will be expressed throughout, as is the purpose of this post series.

 

They do practise animal sacrifice, but not for shock value or for the sake of killing. They see it as combining the spirit with the animal’s life force and thus rejuvenating the spirit. In a sense it’s a way of using death to continue life. But at least they don’t let the body go to waste; they actually cook and eat it as part of the ritual.

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Yep, really feelin’ the spirit o’ that there chickun.

While I understand the need for disguise back in the TAST/ colonial era, the Christian influence in all 3 “sects” is ever-present. The loa are often represented as Christian angels/ saints. I can let it slide for the Haitian & Louisiana sects due to loss of contact with the Motherland, but the African one still holding onto it shows the psychological grip of the West.

I fail to understand how people still believe in spirits when we can clearly see in this day and age that they don’t exist. Except if what they mean by spirits is natural phenomena like gravity, rainfall, lightning strikes, seed germination, etc. Spirits are literally the namesake of this religion, the translation of the Fon/ Ewe word vodun*. Followers believe the vodun exist side by side with the living and can be invoked for various purposes.

* The modern word loa/lwa comes from French loi which means law. 

Though “branches” of the faith may deal with God and genesis of the world, they don’t prioritise them. Instead much more importance is given to ancestor spirits, whom the practitioners interact with and ask for help with particular tasks. While some believe the Vodouists order the spirits around it’s more the other way round, and though spirits are usually benevolent it is possible for a spirit to be turned evil by being asked to do evil things too often. Nice to know mere mortals have some degree of control over the supernatural realm.

On the topic of spirit summoning, spirits are regarded as specialists in certain areas of life. For instance if you’re experiencing unreciprocated love you would ask Erzulie Freda for help on that, or Azawa to sort out your failing crops, or Ogoun for protection from violence. Having read about how polytheistic religions tended to be henotheistic (meaning they acknowledge the existence of multiple gods but have 1 or a few personal favourites) I have a newfound respect for “pagans”. Plus they’re allowed to change their minds on which deities to worship – these gods ain’t jealous! It seems more tolerant of differing & decentralised forms of worship, and if that’s how Voodoo works I respect it just as much.

Perhaps surprisingly, when possession is requested by a follower they are guided through it by a priest/-ess. Those priests & priestesses are specially trained to handle possessions and thus aren’t given free reign to make up shit on the spot. Likewise they’re not seen as the ultimate arbiters of the spirits’ will, the spirits themselves are. So at least it’s not haphazard & left up to chance as to what the possessed person gets up to. At least that’s how it works on paper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the other hand, in order for the spirits to have any effect in your life (whether you’re summoning them for good or evil) you have to believe in them. You probably already know my thoughts on such blind faith.

According to Wikipedia, much of the misunderstanding of this faith comes from Europeans’ confusion of it with Bò, a related practice that draws elements from and can summon the same spirits as the Vodun “pantheon” but considered distinct. It’s referred to as an occult science, while Vodun is a whole way of life. Apparently Juju is almost completely unrelated to Vodun.

Interestingly, also according to the Wiki page creating zombies is not part of the faith at all. Zombies started off as TAST-era folklore, under the belief that dead slaves could be resurrected and forced to serve their slavers for eternity. This doesn’t really have anything to do with contacting ancestors per se, thus this point is more for information than critiquing.

And on the topic of dolls, they are used as part of some rituals. However they’re just used as focal points for the Vodouisant, and it’s his or her intentions that make its use good or bad.

Oh, and they like snakes.

My kind of woman.

It would be good ot go on longer but it’s difficult to find much information so there’s not a lot to critique for the time being. As there are no holy books in this faith, I can’t direct you to any links thereto. Instead here are videos of some of their rituals:

And here‘s an article listing some of the spirits in the Voodoo “pantheon”. Enjoy.

Back to Part 11, on to Part 13

2 thoughts on “In the name of God/s, part 12: Vodun”

  1. In 1987 participated in a voodoo ceremony administered by a shaman of mixed African American Okanagan descent. I found it extremely helpful. It enabled me to get in touch with a part of myself I was suppressing.

    Liked by 1 person

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