Thanks to popular portrayal by Hollywood, voodoo is perhaps one of the world’s most misunderstood religions. Most depictions of voodoo show a dark, mysterious religion that revolves around animal sacrifices, casting harmful spells, and using dolls to hurt others. That’s about as far from the truth as you can get, and the real stories behind voodoo are proof that you can’t believe everything you see on television.
Voodoo is also known as Vodun, Voudou, Vodoun, and Hoodoo and is derived from the Fon word Vodu, which means spirit or deity. The term Voodoo and its derivative Hoodoo originated as derogatory expressions to refer to systems of sorcery and magic, or to specific spells or charms stemming from these systems. Voodoo is an established religion with as many as 60 million followers worldwide, with large populations in New York, Miami, and Montreal, cities with the greatest concentrations of Haitian immigrants.
Similar to Santeria, Voodoo is a syncretic religion that developed as a response to the African slave trade; Voodoo evolved among the slaves who were taken to Haiti. Although some of the rituals and ceremonies of Voodoo are comparable to Santeria, there are marked differences. The African tribes where the religious movements originated from were different and the rites varied with each tribe.
Voodoo derived from the African tribes of the Nagos, Ibos, Aradas, Dahomeans, and others. Although they share Yoruba and Kongo influences, the cultures they assimilated into were different; Haiti was under French influence during the slave trade while Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were under Spanish rule.
Voodoo has a loosely organized priesthood open to both men and women. Male priests are called Houngan and female priests are called Mambo; these limit their practices to white magic, whereas Bokors, also known as Caplatas, practice what is referred to as left hand magic, red magic, or evil sorcery.
The color of the spirit is red, and when a practitioner allows an evil loa to take possession of them, their eyes turn red showing that evil is present. It is the image of the Bokor that usually provides the stereotypical portrayal of Voodoo spells that are supposed to cause death, illness, or injury, to obtain riches, to bring bad luck to enemies or good fortune to a client, and also to invoke the zombie, a corpse that has been raised from the grave to live again as a mindless slave.
Haitian Voodoo is comprised of both good and evil uses of magic, as utilized by the Houngon and the Bocor. There are many different types of Voodoo rituals including individual acts of piety such as lighting candles for particular spirits and large feasts sometimes lasting several days. Similar to Santeria, initiation, divination, sacrifice, and spirit possession are fundamental Voodoo rituals.
The Haitian form of Voodoo has a total of 43 deities, 11 of them are the majors (i.e. Papa Legba, Mami Wata, Baron Samedi), known collectively as Loa, who participate in ritualistic ceremonies in several different ways. Rituals are most commonly held to invoke a particular god who best fits the need of the moment and gods are known either as Rada or Petro. Rada and Petro spirits sharply contrast; the Rada spirits are known for their wisdom and benevolence while the Petro spirit loas are often considered to be “angry” or demon loa, used in “black magic”, and of Congo influence.
Each Loa has its own attributes and form of worship. They are also referred to as “mystères” and “the invisibles” and are intermediaries between Bondye —the Supreme Creator, who is distant from the world—and humanity. Unlike saints or angels, however, they are not simply prayed to, they are served. In addition to the attributes associated with Voodoo gods, each god also has their own symbolic drawings called veves; these are line drawings most often drawn during ceremonies to worship a particular spirit.
Voodoo first came to the United States in 1803, when the prohibition against importing slaves from the West Indies was lifted to allow planters access to more labor. What began in Louisiana as the Haitian transplant of Voodoo eventually evolved into an American syncretism known as Hoodoo. This newer form of the ancient traditions developed differently in the United States, supplanting many of its religious aspects with more cultural and medicinal aspects.