To many, the word voodoo carries with it some pretty dark images of zombies, bleeding chickens, and even satanism, but it also holds a history rich with spirituality, intense suffering, and cultural misrepresentation. Like the generally accepted and respected religion of Catholicism, voodoo was once a supreme belief system for many, brought about through a trust in the old ways and a confrontation with the unknown. What it became over time was something much deeper, darker, and more complex than most practitioners knew possible - the culmination of an extreme African diaspora and the religious evolution it demanded. Like a rich southern stew, voodoo's distinct flavors come from various places, all of which reflect its fiery background and overarching desire to find ritual, divinity, and understanding in a world full of darkness.
Voodoo has moved to a lot of different places throughout history - the Caribbean, the United States, Brazil, and other parts of South America - but it is still wildly misunderstood, especially because of its inaccurate and sensationalized portrayal by the media and pop culture. (Anyone who was alive in the '90s remembers the movie Angel Heart). Many have been titillated by images of bloody goats and zombie trances, rather than interested in understanding the cultural significance associated with these rituals or the deep historic pain they represent. On the surface, voodoo is strange, spooky, alternative, and personalized - all classical elements of the immoral.
Given its dark, expressive nature, many are surprised to learn that voodoo is ultimately about hope and finding positivity for the future. As a slave, it may have been used as an expression of sorrow, grief, and anguish, but it was always intended to bring comfort and acceptance to those who believed. You must embrace the dark in order to find the light, as they are forever linked together, and in that way, voodoo is an accurate portrayal of life's complexity. At a recent celebration in Benin, when a contemplative man was asked what he hoped to gain from the spirits, he replied, "Today, we ask for peace."
Unlike most religions, voodoo does not focus on just one god but preaches that there is spirituality in everything - plants, snakes, the color green - regardless of how inanimate or insignificant they may seem. This practice of animism suggests that these - seemingly innocuous - things can assume power at any time, making the world a most unpredictable and revered force, full of magic. Depending on where it is practiced, voodoo goes by different names and is an intensely syncretic religion that folds many perspectives and periods of history into one dark, roiling, suggestive philosophy. The top deity in the voodoo world is Bondye, the main creator responsible for universal order and human life. Unlike all other belief systems, there is no "evil" in voodoo, as goodness is something measured only against how it affects Bondye's power. In that way, things that strengthen life - like freedom, joy, and hope - are deemed good, while things that destroy this ideal are seen as less good.
But Bondye is not a loving and watchful god. In fact, practitioners of voodoo believe he has lost interest in the world he created, thus forcing his people to look for powerful, helpful spirits elsewhere in the world known as Loa. The Loa are the real rulers in voodoo and can take many forms, from a terrifying spider to a peaceful tree. But regardless of size and shape, the Loa have different kinds of energy and expectation - some are benevolent, and some are most decidedly not. It is up to the practitioner to find their own moral nature in relation to darkness and light, establishing their own place in the benevolent order of things - or malevolent, as the case may be.
Known as vodun in West Africa where it originated, the term describes a religion formed when slaves were forced to combine elements of their regional beliefs with the Catholicism being imposed upon them by invading Europeans. Before the rise of established religion, the spiritual practices of vodun were not unlike paganism, as they were associated with nature and the strength of different forces on earth - called the Loa. In 1685, the law forbade the practice of such native beliefs and required all masters to christen their slaves immediately upon purchase.
Because slavery was condoned by the Catholic Church as a tool for converting Africans to morally upright Christians, many of the deities associated with vodun became inextricably intertwined with the saints. In essence, voodoo became a hybrid religion between the old ways and the beliefs of Europe. Images of screaming demons merged with virgin figures to create shocking and powerful new interpretations of deities. West African celebrations of vodun still reflect the unusual merging of these two contrasting religions and echo the sentiments of a culture that was forced to accommodate unwelcome elements into their ancient way of life through violence and imperialism.
Spiritually, voodoo developed differently when it left Africa, mirroring the torment and anguish felt by those who sang its songs. In Haiti, it became known as vodou, a spiritual force that bolstered the slaves through tremendous hardship. Vodou was, in fact, the propelling force behind the infamous slave revolts of the early 1800s that would eventually push the French from the island.
Similar to Benin's vodun celebration, there is an annual event in Cape Haitian called the Plaine du Nord Festival - a ritualistic ceremony that allows practitioners to explore the darkness of their past while sending a message of hope to the future. Compared to the quainter expressions of West Africa where people carve intricate wooden dolls and don vibrant outfits, vodou demonstrations in Haiti are decidedly darker and reflective of a human experience rife with profound pain and ongoing struggles. Practitioners serve the spirits and the Loa through ritual ceremonies that honor the mysterious, unexplainable forces or powers that govern the world, the same ones that once ripped them from their homeland.
Thousands of people fill the streets of Haiti to pray and "baptize" themselves in a sacred pool of mud symbolic of history's lowest depths. On Easter Sunday, they cathartically call the spirits forth while wearing all white, sacrificing animals like goats, chickens, and cows and soaking themselves in the blood - sometimes even mixing it with rum and drinking it. Just as their ancestors were forced to stare directly into the evil eye of slavery, they too embrace the inevitability of suffering and death, making it part of themselves as a way to accept the past and face the future, no matter what it might bring. Although Haiti no longer employs slavery and has established vodou as a national religion, it still struggles to this day to shake off the economic and cultural repercussions of France's past abuses.