Anthropology of Voodoo Culture: A Journey through Myth and History

A Vodou altar in Haiti.

Be honest: what is the very first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “voodoo”? Is it a scary-looking ragdoll, for people to stick pins and needles into? Is it a mysterious man, dressed in a tail coat and a top hat, with a skull painted on his face? Or maybe is it some kind of hex you have heard of, like that of turning someone’s picture upside down to give them a headache?
It is fine, you can admit it. After all, you – and most people that do not practice Vodou, myself included! – have probably grown up watching and reading content in which these stereotypes were the only elements promoted about the topic. So, you are forgiven.
As you can probably guess by this point however, those same stereotypes are completely – or partially, at least – wrong and have concurred in recent years to charge the word “voodoo” with a dark, exotic and evocative power.

But what is Vodou, really?

Man applying voodoo with another man.

Despite all the stories and prejudices circling around it, Vodou (also spelled Voodoo, Vodun, Voudou or French Vaudou) is a religion, one that has deep and ancient roots in the African kingdom once called Dahomey – known today as Benin. The name itself originates from that same old realm, and can be translated with “spirit” or “deity”.
Rich in traditions, however, Vodou does not only refer to religious practices, but also encompasses philosophy, justice and medicine.

But what is its core principle? Well, according to Vodou, everything is spirit: humans are the spirits that inhabit the visible world, while the invisible world is home to the lwa (literally, “spirits”) or mystè (“mysteries”) or again anvizib (“the invisibles”). These exist as a link between people and Bondye, the creator god, a remote being that is beyond human understanding and direct interaction.
It is through the lwa, in fact, that Bondye can manifest his will and have an actual impact on people’s lives. This creates Vodou’s primary goal and activity for its practitioners: sevi lwa, to “serve the spirits”, or, in other words, to perform rites and offer prayers to ask what men have always asked of religion – health, protection and favor.

Anthropology: Diving deeper into its origin

Group portrait of 'Dahomey Amazons', visiting Paris (Europe), Circa 01 / 02-1891

Religion is only a part of the cultural experience that the Fon people could bring along when, between the 16th and 17th century, they were enslaved by the Spanish empire and brought to Hispaniola – the modern Haiti. And it is only the beginning for Vodou and its history, which stems from the Fon tradition, but will have to mix with Roman Catholicism and survive in secret for many years, before becoming what it is today.
How could we be certain, though? After all, the number of African tribes brought to the New World’s plantations was quite high: Senegalese, Angolese, Bambara, Mahi, Fon, Naho, and many others. Though deeply connected at times, it is very unlikely that the entirety of Africa contributed in weaving this tapestry of beliefs, and it is through the available historical evidence we possess that we can narrow down Vodou’s area of origin down to the Gulf of Benin. Here, the population of the kingdom of Dahomey was very dense, offering an inexhaustible source of men to the Europeans: slave trade soon became a national industry in the once prosperous realm.
That is how tens of thousands of natives were taken from their homeland and brought to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Their only luggage? Culture and traditions orally passed on from generation to generation, which slowly became their only light of hope in their new life of hard labor.

From Spanish domain to French colony

Then, in 1697, Spain released the western part of Hispaniola to France, who renamed it Saint-Domingue: plantations increased from 18 to 120 and, consequently, slave trade escalated dramatically. Moreover, since Catholicism was the official religion of the newly-established French colony, African slaves began to undergo a forced christening. This is when Vodou begins to surface, turning into a symbol of resistance and unity. Against official laws, the African community in fact began to organize secret gatherings during the night, in which they would pray, dance and sing as the Vodou religion required, regardless of how exhausted they were or the punishments they would suffer if caught.
And so, thanks to the determination and bravery of those people, Vodou survived through the ages, an echo of hope through oppression and revolts. Its practice was made punishable by the Republic of Haiti in 1835, and again, in 1941, the newly elected president Élie Lescot waged a campaign against it, imprisoning Vodou priests and priestesses and burning artifacts and temples. Such is the fear of the unknown or, most probably, unity.
We have to wait until 1972, 31 years later, for Vodou to be allowed to be practiced freely in Haiti, and it is only in 2003 that it is finally recognized as an official religion.

1,000 spirits and counting

Papa Legba's veve. Veves are sybols used to appeal the lwa.

There is something extraordinary about Vodou’s journey through the centuries and the continents, an incredible proof of the legacy passed on across the generations. And what legacy!
As we already mentioned, in fact, Vodou recognizes Bondye – from the French bon dieu, meaning “good god” – as its creator god, but mostly serves the lwa (or loa) to establish a connection with him. Simple, right?
Still, you may not realize that Vodou counts more than 1,000 lwa, grouped in at least 17 pantheons (called nanchon). This is where the situation gets slightly more complicated, but should also give you a better understanding of how incredible was the effort of all those who safeguarded and handed down these beliefs.

In terms of both size and importance, there are two main pantheons in Vodou: the Rada Lwa and the Petwo Lwa. It can still be quite difficult to tell the two nations apart – since the two groups can overlap with one another and some lwa are present in both – but the easiest way is to separate them is, above all, through their general character.
Rada lwa are associated with “water” and a more “cool” energy, indicating how their demeanor is generally benevolent and sweet-tempered – although they can turn vindictive if offended or displeased.
On the other hand, Petwo lwa are linked to “fire” and “hot” energy, a perfect reminder of their forceful, violent and often dangerous attitude. Yet, they can also reveal themselves to be generous and very protective of the living.
As you can imagine, much like in the Greek pantheon, deities in Vodou are indeed far from perfect, painting an interesting but also very real picture for each of the venerated lwa.

Some of the most important lwa

The first we should probably talk about is Legba, who is generally known even by the non-practitioners. And for good reasons! He is, in fact, the master and keepers of crossroads and doors: anyone who wishes to call on a lwa needs to contact him first, as he will be the one to open the gates to the spirit world. No lwa dares to show themselves without Legba’s approval, showing us how powerful and important he is. Despite this, however, he is usually portrayed as an old man, often with injuries or deformities. He wanders around dressed in rags and a straw hat, walking with his cane and a cloth sack to carry his offerings. He is generally benevolent and much loved by the Vodou community, who will refer to him as “Papa Legba”.

Damballah is another important lwa of the Vodou tradition: he is associated with creation and thus seen as the father of the world. He rules over mind and intellect, and is also in charge of the balance of the world, encouraging peace and harmony.
Just like his wife, Ayida-Weddo, he is depicted as a snake and together they stand for the power and eternity of life, which makes them two of the wisest lwa in the pantheons.

Erzulie Dantor is depicted as the only non-black loa, draped in luxurious robes with a crown on her head. Dantor is a mother figure and a protector of children, in addition to being a symbol of romance and love. Many women who have suffered abuse will invoke her for her strong powers of protection, which she shows through her aggressive and wild side.
She has several different roles: goddess of love, health, beauty and fortune, as well as goddess of jealousy, vengeance, and discord.

More ancient than any other loa, Marassa Jumeaux is actually two people. These twin children represent the mysteries of both Earth and heaven, as well as the conflict and contradictions in both. They are neither man nor woman but are both genders at the same time. In representing both humans and divine sprits, they also keep the secrets of the universe and knowledge about astrology and astronomy.
In Voodoo ceremonies, they are never called upon through possession but they are important enough to usually be invoked immediately after Papa Legba. Marassa Jumeaux can help people who seek truth, justice and reason.

Other important lwa are Agwé, sovereign of the sea, ships and sailors; Ogun, ruler of politics, hunting, war and iron, seen as a symbol or strength and power; Loko, the lwa of trees and vegetation in general; Ayizan, the lwa of market places and protector of merchants.

Wait… Possession?

Women applying voodo to woman in muddy waters. The women are clothed in white.

Summarizing: we have Vodou, an ancient religion that comes from the intertwining of African beliefs and Roman Catholicism. We have numerous pantheons of lwa, counting hundreds of spirits, each with their own characteristics and attitude.
But how does Vodou work, exactly? How do its practitioners serve the spirits to ask for favors? Well, unfortunately there is no specific answer, as Vodou does not have a single leader or a specific spokesperson. This means that rituals and ceremonies often vary throughout Haiti and can merge with traditions from different backgrounds. They can also differ from family to family since, as we already discovered, Vodou has mostly been passed on orally.In cities, however, a congregation made of a priest or a priestess (so, a manbo or an oungan), “children of the spirits” and ritual drummers can give life to more “formal” ceremonies.
It usually starts with a gathering: practitioners meet outdoors or, most commonly, inside an ounfò – a Vodou temple. In its center, stands a potomitan (literally, “pillar in the middle), which connects the ground to the ceiling and is usually decorated with a beautiful spiraling snake. The lwa are believed to ascend or descend through the potomitan, which is therefore seen as a magical axis, but it also serves as a focal point for ritualistic dances.
It is through these dances in fact – together with songs, prayers, the drawing of vèvè (spiritual drawings) and drumming – that the lwa are invited to join the living in the ceremony and accept the offering that the manbo or the oungan have sacrificed for them – usually, a sanctified chicken or another animal.
This, however, is where things get more interesting: since the lwa are not part of our world, but belong instead to the invisible one, the only way they can directly communicate with people is to take possession of one of the attendees – usually the person who is presiding over the ritual. It is then through this individual, who is “riding with the lwa”, that the spirit may reach out to the living and will often be asked for advice or help with problems – mostly health-related.

Is it black magic, then?

Man and woman in red applying black magic.

Well, you should answer that question now, my dear children of the 21st century. Keep those initial images you had in your mind at hand: the pin-stuck doll, the scary, evil man with a painted face, the human sacrifices, all of those dark, wicked ideas that modern zombie movies and popular books have instilled in our common knowledge.
Now, take the other images that this article has, hopefully, conjured for you: abducted men and women, gathering together in the night to ask for the help of their protectors; colorful dances and ancient melodies sang in unison around a colorful pillar; benevolent deities, that will turn very much human if offended or wronged.
And so, tell me? What is Vodou? An exotic taboo? Or an ancient story to tell?

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