Updated: Oct 9
While African spirituality is growing in popularity, many African-derived spiritual systems are still seen as taboo. In fact, all African spiritual systems have been ostracized at some level throughout the course of history. This has primarily been due to spiritual or religious superiority that has been perpetuated through slavery and colonization.
Resultantly, many people view African-derived spiritual practices in a negative light. They often associate them with devil worship or other sinister practices. Voodoo and hoodoo in particular have taken the brunt of the bruises that have been inflicted by such perceptions. For many, the term voodoo is synonymous with devil worship. When in actuality the term simply means “spirit”.
While I would like for the perception of African spirituality to change overnight, reshaping people’s understanding of such systems is a process. It is very much the same as the process that people throughout the African diaspora have endured in regards to achieving civil liberties and freedom.
Though many of us are no longer in physical bondage, our spiritual development has very much been arrested. This is not only related to the influence of outsiders, but it is also because of our own perceptions about our ancestral heritage. Sadly, just as many African diasporans shun African spiritual practices as other people groups.
Primarily, this is because of our collective ignorance about traditional African spirituality. Some groups have been able to maintain this ancient knowledge and wisdom. These individuals still practice within these systems today.
Conversely, many have been indoctrinated in westernized and Middle Eastern religions. This is one of the main reasons why finding information about African spirituality is often difficult. Another reason is that knowledge of voodoo secrets and wisdom is usually passed down through family lines. It is also transmitted by the spirits directly to spiritualists who have been granted access to certain secrets and knowledge.
WHAT IS VOODOO?
Voodoo (vodun, vodou, or vudu) is a form of spirituality that is currently practiced in many areas of the world including Benin (West Africa), Haiti, and Louisiana. There are also other forms of voodoo within the African diaspora that are called by different names such as Ifa, Santeria, Lucumi, 21 Divisions, Obeah, etc. Also, there are many ways to spell voodoo in addition to the ones that I have already mentioned.
While there are many similarities in these practices, they are not the exact same. Fundamentally they all serve the same purpose, which is appealing to and appeasing benevolent spirits and primordial energies. True voodoo service entails communicating with universal and regional energies that have a great influence over our lives. Authentic voodoo is about solving problems and helping people to improve their overall condition. It is not about destroying people or manipulating their will, as many people suspect. While people certainly use magic to engage in such practices, this is not authentic voodoo. True voodoo does not incorporate malevolent or malicious practices designed to harm or otherwise control others.
Appealing to and appeasing spirits is done through various rituals and ceremonies in which a qualified spiritualist divines in order to communicate with a spirit in some form or fashion. Possession is a common way in which spiritualists engage with the spiritual realm. When most people think of voodoo, images of a spiritual leader going into a trance often come to mind. While this certainly happens, there are other forms of divination used in different forms of voodoo. Every form of voodoo has its own system that adds depths and dimensions that make each of them distinctly unique.
Possession imagery is mostly popular because of western media influences. Such imagery is generally used to frighten people into believing that voodoo practitioners are worshiping the devil or harming people.
The irony of this is that many indigenous American and eastern religions (Hindu, Buddist, etc.) engage in many of the same practices. However, these forms of spiritism are usually promoted as peaceful, tranquil practices.
Benin is considered to be the place where its commonly associated modern-day voodoo derivatives found in Haiti and Louisiana originated. Although, practitioners of these forms of voodoo also came from other parts of Africa. Benin vodun is considered to be the most authentic form of voodoo as it has not been synchronized with westernized religious systems.
As with all other forms of voodoo, Benin vodun integrates offerings, animal sacrifices, spiritual baths, talismans, icons, and other tools and devices in its rituals and ceremonies. Annual festivals and initiation ceremonies for orishas (spirits) are also performed as part of Benin vodun.
Animal sacrifices often get the most attention as some onlookers consider this to be a cruel or evil practice. The irony of this is that many meat-eaters don’t consider that an animal has been sacrificed for their physical nourishment.
In a similar way, voodoo integrates animal sacrifices for a person’s spiritual nourishment and well-being. And in many cases, the sacrificed animal is prepared and eaten by ritual and ceremonial participants. In fact, sacrifices are only done in voodoo when absolutely necessary. Sacrificed animals are usually raised and slaughtered in a way that preserves the integrity of their life and their purpose.
This is in opposition to the inhuman breeding and mass slaughter of animals for commercial distribution. Hundreds of thousands of these animals are actually discarded each year due to rot and waste. Yet, sacrifice in voodoo has been deemed as sinister and barbaric.
Another contradiction to this practice can be found in Christianity. Many Christians consider animal sacrifice to be evil as they think that it is part of devil worship. However, they do not consider that the god of the Bible actually ordained animal sacrifice. In fact, the ultimate sacrifice in Christianity was a human sacrifice according to adherents of Biblical scriptures. In actuality, much of the Biblical record is derived from ancient African spiritual systems. Many of the sacrificial elements that are in the old testament were recorded by African spiritualists (aka Israelites).
In fact, modern-day Haitians are considered to be the lost tribe of Levi by some Biblical scholars. This is one reason why Haitian vodou is thought by some to be more potent than other forms of vodou.
In the Bible, the Levites served as the priesthood and carried high-level spiritual knowledge and power. They even used divination tools, the urim and thummim, to obtain oracle messages from god. The most prominent Levite in the Bible, Moses, divined and used incantations on many occasions. Notably, he used “magic” against the Egyptians as he was trying to free his people.
Haitian vodou is an amalgamation of African vodun practices and indigenous American (Taino) spiritual systems. However, it is most often associated with Benin vodun because of its namesake.
Some voodoo sosyete (societies) are heavily synchronized with Catholicism as well. This occurred during the enslavement of the indigenous people and west Africans who were transported to the island of Hispaniola.
Many of these people were forced to practice Catholicism during that period and give up their own spiritual systems. Fortunately, many of them refused to do so and instead hid their spiritual practices under the cloak of Catholicism.
This is the main reason why Haitian vodou loa are often represented by Catholic saints. In fact, some Catholic saints have been adopted into the Haitan vodou pantheon because of its close relationship with this religion. The enslaved people pretended to worship Catholic saints by using Catholic imagery while they were actually paying homage to the loa. Haitian vodou is probably the most infamous form of vodou in modern-day society. This is because of its association with the Haitian revolution that subsequently freed the people of the land. Consequently, Haiti became the first free black nation in 1804.
To date, the Haitian revolution is regarded as the only successful slave revolt in human history. The Haitian revolution was the primary contributing factor to enslaved African people in America gaining freedom 59 years later. It was also very significant in much of Latin America gaining its independence shortly after Haiti.
Sadly, the people on the island have been ostracized every since for using vodou to overcome slavery. Though their ancestor Moses is still lauded to this day for using a similar method to free the Israelites from bondage.
This mentality was primarily perpetrated by former slave masters who didn’t want other black nations to get the same idea. Thereafter, Haitians have been systematically disenfranchised and marginalized throughout the world. Likewise, vodou has been condemned along with the people group.
Yet, the practice still prevails in the region. Even Haitians who identify as Christians still consult vodou for their most pressing life challenges. While it is not considered a mainstream religion in the country, it is widely practiced by Haitians and other ethnic groups throughout the world. And, it is likewise gaining momentum as more people return to African spirituality.
Voodoo practiced in Louisiana also originated from the Benin people and other groups in west Africa. The heavy influence of vodou in this state came from Africans who were transported directly from Africa. A number of French slaveholders also brought their Haitian slaves with them after the revolution of 1804 that ended the French-controlled slavery system in Haiti.
It is said that the captured families from West Africa who were brought to Louisiana were more cohesive. They were rarely separated and often spent much, if not all, of their lives with their families on the same plantation.
The plantations in this region were also fairly large with many slaves. Plantation owners spent less time overseeing the slaves in this region so the slaves had more freedom to practice their traditional spirituality. This dynamic created the perfect environment for perpetuating voodoo in this region for generations.
While Louisiana voodoo shares many similarities with Haitian vodou, it is probably more similar to the vodun of Benin. The incorporation of fetishes (amulets and charms) and annual festivals into Louisiana voodoo is a prominent carryover from west Africa.
As Haitian vodou was ostracized, voodoo practices throughout the western world came under attack. Louisiana voodoo practitioners were hit hard during this era. They had to go underground with their practice, which subsequently led to a heavy degree of synchronization of their spiritual practices with Catholicism.
Centuries later in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2015, Louisiana voodoo was subject to further attack and ostracization. The continued practice of voodoo by the people in this region was blamed for the suffering that they endured as the result of a broken levee that led to horrific flooding in the state. The same held true for Haitians who endured the catastrophic destruction from a large-scale earthquake that hit the country in 2010.
But still, the legacy of voodoo lives on as a distinctly unique African American flavor of spiritism. It is still widely practiced throughout America. And, it is consulted by Americans of various ethnicities and other nationalities who find relief in the remedies that it provides.
Voodoo is a vast spiritual system with many intricate layers. There are several systems that are considered part of voodoo practice. Voodoo is a very ancient practice that predates the most common religions of today including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Because of its origin, which is spirit, I suppose that it will continue for all eternity.
Dr. Asanee Brogan is the owner and principal coach at Asanee Coaching Services where she offers spiritual, business, career, and financial coaching services and products.