Voodoo History

Voodoo History
Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. Although Britain outlawed slavery in 1833 and it was abolished in the USA after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1865, the transatlantic trade in African slaves continued. The main market for the slaves was Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The practice of Voodoo is probably as old as the continent of African. Sometimes written as Voudou, Vodou or Vodun, the word itself means God Creator or Great Spirit. The word Voodoo has been greatly distorted and misused, taking on characters of human sacrifices, vampires, dripping blood and devil worship. Making good for edge sitting, spooky novels and Hollywood movies, yet, none of these practices originated with or ever belonged to Voodoo!

Voodoo is a life-affirming practice that encourages its participants to better understand the natural processes of life and their spiritual natures. If one looks at the dictionary, Voodoo is likely to be defined as an ancient religion from Africa, that involves the cult of Ancestors, of various animistic spirits, and the use of trances to communicate with such spirits. Voodoo did indeed originate in Africa. Today, it is practiced by millions throughout the world, in Africa, the Caribbean, Central, North and South America, in various forms, often with elements of catholicism mixed in. However, its main purpose remains as always to heal: to heal the individual in relationships within himself or herself, with others and ultimately with God.

Around 1510 the slave trade began, Africans’ being taken into slavery, from the West Coast of Africa (Gulf of Guinea) from what is now Senegal and Gambia to the Congo region. The enslaved ancestors who were torn from their native lands carried with them their beliefs and regional practices. This and their cuisine were the only things that could not be ripped from them. Many were first brought to the Caribbean islands to work the plantations and were forcibly Christianized. Their white owners (“masters”) did not recognize the mystical qualities of their native ceremonies. Rather, they considered them to be savages, incapable of abstract concepts or spirituality. Yet, in the terrible conditions of their enslavement, the Africans’ only hope lied in their very faith. Amidst broken tribes and families, they found unity and solace in God and ancient rituals. They cleverly hid their traditional worship in Christian worship, which gave them inward freedom.

Although African slaves came from many different regions, most influential were the tribes from Nigeria and Dahomey. In 1729 the Dahomeys conquered their neighbors, the Ewes and sold their prisoners to the slave-ships, often in exchange for European goods. Many from Dahomey were also kidnapped. Both tribes had incorporated snake worship into their religious rites, and some priests of the religion unwillingly found themselves on route to Haiti and the new world. Within one generation of their arrival, these priests had already established temples (Hounfors) and developed a following in spite of their captivity and severe opposition of the French and Spanish churches. The term Vo-Du came from the Fons of Dahomey.

The other great influence came from Yorubaland (Nigeria), the site of the sacred city of Ile-Ife. Among the Yorubas, the Loa (Lwa or Spirits) are known as Orisha. Other people that contributed to modern Voodoo in the new world are the Aradia, Nago, Ibo, Congo, Senegalese, Mandingo, Ethiopians, Sudanese and Malgaches.

Voodoo worshipers believe in the existence of one supreme God, a very abstract, omnipotent yet, unknowable force. Below this almighty God, Spirits or Loa rule over the world’s affairs in matter of family, love, happiness, justice, health, wealth, work, the harvest or the hunt, etc. Offerings are made to the appropriate Loa to ensure success in those areas. Each Loa has its preferred fruits or vegetables, color, number, day of the week, etc. The Loa also manifest through elements of nature such as the wind and rain, lightning and thunder, the river, the ocean, springs and lakes, the sky, the sun, certain animals, trees and stones. Every element of nature, animal, tree, plant, fruit or vegetable is sacred to a certain Loa or Orisha.

Ancestors are consulted for guidance and protection. A rich and deep body of mythology and tales exists attesting to the amazing memory and poetic ability of the “Griots” who passed it orally from elder to youth and so on throughout the ages. It is truly a remarkable body of spirituality and a code by which African lives were ruled.

Upon their arrival in the West Indies and the New World, the slaves found difficulty in continuing the practice of their ancestral rites, sometimes under penalty of death. But they quickly understood the essential similarities between their beliefs and those of the Catholics; the Catholics praying to their Saints to intercede to a higher God in their favor. That is, in fact, the exact criteria used to “make a Saint”, the ability to obtain miracles. They began substituting the name of the Loas, with the names and some of the attributes of the Saints, and forming branches of the African religion.

On the Spanish Islands, the new religion became known as Santeria (the worship of the Saints). In other islands and in New Orleans, the term Voodoo remained. Because of its unique blend of French, Spanish and Indian cultures, New Orleans offered a perfect setting for the practice and growth of Voodoo. In 1809 many Haitians who had migrated to Cuba during the Haitian revolution found themselves cast out and came to New Orleans. They brought with them their African slaves who incorporated their rites and beliefs with those of the existent slave population – Africans from Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria previously brought to Louisiana by the Companie des Indes. Voodoo in Louisiana was enriched and revitalized. It also incorporated the worship of the Snake Spirit (Damballah Wedo / Aida Wedo). To the Africans, Voodoo was not only their religion, but it was also their natural medicine, their protection and a way of asserting and safeguarding a sense of personal freedom and identity.

Today about 15% of the population of New Orleans practices Voodoo. Modern Voodoo has taken several directions: Spiritualist, Reverends and Mothers who have their own churches, who integrate and work spells and elements of European witchcraft, along with the occult, and traditionalists – for whom the practice of Voodoo is a most natural and important part of their daily lives. The practice of Voodoo involves the search for higher levels of consciousness through a powerful mystical practice between mankind and God. Thus, seeking to save man from estrangement from the universe.