Voodoo and Its Misinterpretation in America
Voodoo is a religion rich in heiratage and founded in faith and community. The religion has been villianized by western culture and has been wrongly protrayed as malignant and dangerous. The religion is not founded in any of the black magics or fear popularized by Hollywood films, but rather it is based on balance and tradition. The religion is not something which should be encountered with inhibition or fear induced from childhood horror stories, but embraced for its strength and history.
Voodoo (also known as Vodun, Vodou, Umbanda, Quimbanda, and Candomble) originated as an amalgam of African religions during the slave trade. As slaves were shipped from Africa to the Carribean and America, groups of slaves sharing a similier heretage were broken apart to prevent any since of community or bond between them. With no connection beyond the tortures of slavery, the slaves had little chance to establish any relationship to thier fellow captives. Hailing from lifestyles and cultures far removed from each other, the only opportunity for a common bond came from sharing their deep faiths. Though different religions, the intense faiths allowed an intellectual exchange and common bond. With several different religions present in any given group of slaves, the majority of slaves adapted by holding a service which accepted all lineages and respected all ancestreal lines of faith, both aspects being of primary concerns in African religions. These services were effective in blending the rites and practices of many religions into one combination religion. This adaption effectively created a new religion, Voodoo, which translates to spirit in several African languages. This new religion gave the slaves a since of alliance with their nieghboring slaves and, with that alliance, a since of community. This new found unity was viewed as a threat to the French and Brittish plantation owners of the newly settled colonies. As a means to quell the religious unity, the plantation owners forbid the practice of religion and punished slaves who attempted to pursue voodoo.Catholicism was presented as an alternative to the African-based but now independant and Carribean religion. Instead of accepting the Catholic religion, many slaves only incorperated it into the establishing Voodoo religion. Catholicism remains an important aspect of Voodoo, and many of its methods and rituals are currently practiced as Voodoo (this is especially accurate in Santeria, a Cuban based Voodoo). The punishments of practicing voodoo forced voodoo to remaine secretive until slavery itself died out. Voodoo became a myth among plantation owners and only to the surface once slaves or former slaves acquired a means to own property through the revolution of 1804. This revolution was spurred by Voodoo priest and priestesses who had worked in secracy and organized the slaves into an army. When the slaves overcame there oppressors voodoo became a publically accepted religion in the Carribean.
In the three centuries of religious oppression, Voodoo became a symbol of pride and independence for the slaves. Any pride in a slave is of course regarded as a threat to the slave owner. Rumors of human sacrifice and devil worship became prevalent in the social circles of plantation owners and slave traders. These statements had no validity, but traveled quickly throughout Europe and America. The practicers of Voodoo embraced this fear as means to frighten their former masters and gain some respect in a world where they were deprived of everything. Former slave owners quickly found themselves duped into the beliefs of Voodoo dolls and hexes. This early means of freedom through fear is a reason Voodoo is still treated as a sinister religion. It is not that the Voodoo practice was frightening, but that that image was adopted as a means to assure its existance. No historical evidence of human sacrifice or affiliation with western principles of Satan has been discovered. Any affiliation with the occult has occured only recently with the Gothic movement in pop culture, and is not related with any orthadox Voodoo practices.
Voodoo redeemed itself throughout the 1800s with peaceful practice throughout the Carribean and Southern points in America. In 1884 S. St.James wrote the book Haiti or the Black Republic. This book possessed graphically described accounts of canabalism, human sacrifice, and the structured teachings of bad or black magic. St. James sources were the testimonies of voodoo priests who were tortured into these false confessions given during the times of revolution. St. James also used the written statements from the deposed plantation masters as accurate accounts as to why voodoo practicers were being executed. Though exagerated, and in some instances simply imagined, the book was widely distributed and read. As the American film industry emerged in the 1930s, a wealth of horror stories pictured voodoo as a menacing culture. Voodoo, being practiced primarily by individuals without access to the American film society offered no resistance or information while these false protrayals were being made. It was not until the 1950s that any information from legitimate studies emerged.
Primary religions involved in the African aspect of Voodoo are Macumba and Candomble of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and several now extinct tribes from the Congos and Cameroon. These religions lay the ground work for the course of religious ceremonies and contain the origins for the dieties worshipped in modern voodoo. Voodoos principle diety, Olorun (also known as Oloddumare) is the voodoo equivalent to the Christian God. Though the name can be trace to the Yoruba tribe, it is unknown if he is a rimnant of the Catholic involvement in voodoo. Obatala, is a composit of many tribes primary god. He is represented as the giver of life and creator of human kind. Obatala is subserviant to Olorun, but is said to have created the other, lesser Gods. For instance Eleggua, goddess of opportunity and Oya, goddess of fire and wind were both created by Obatala for humanity. In addition to containing the gods of many African cultures, voodoo also expresses the belief in minor spirits who watch or protect specific objects or occurances. Those who were created at the beginning of life are referred to as Rada, and are worshipped as members to the family of Gods. Individuals who lived great lives or led the voodoo followers are often praised and referred to as Petro. Many of the rulers who fought the slave traders in Africa and many of the priests who aided in the revolution have acquired this status. The voodoo culture has ordained the Catholic Saints in this way and acknowledge them as Petro.
As Voodoo was founded in necessity, it is one of the more lineant religions in terms of tolerance of relationship with other religions. Voodoos belief that all things connect to ones soul stresses the importance to not cause harm. Voodouers, (those who practice voodoo) believe every act can be enjoyed, if not for the act itself, then for the pride or satisfaction one can take in the results of the act. For that fact no act can be considered unselfish and therefore it is most important to accept and spread happiness for the majority of mankind. Voodoo makes certain not to condemn those of other faiths, and does not attempt to disprove or replace any. The relationship with Jesus, the primary aspect of western religions, varies with the denominations of Voodoo. Most Voodoo denominations acknowledge his devine stature as the son of God. Current Voodoo converts are encouraged to retain their prestablished religions and add Voodoo as a means to enhance ones spirituality. Voodoo does not see itself as the Sola Fida, rather as a corallary to the other religions. Those who practice voodoo are avid and devout in thier religion, only they view the afterlife as centering more on ones inner light than on ones external beliefs. The afterlife is believed to be one of learning and of understanding. Where the questions of the universe will finally rest. Voodoo also teaches that should one gain access here, their past life will not influence their Ti Bon Ange (little guardian angel) which is the human part of the soul.(The other part, Gros Bon Ange, big guardian angel, being ones conscience and what allows corporeal life) Voodoo contains distinct denominations, but the root faith is constant. The most wide spread voodoo is Yoruban, of orthadox voodoo. The seperations in voodoo varies in the importance of ceremony and the roles of thier clergy. Makaya and Kongo Rite voodoos follow the same structure, but are less rigiorus in ceremony and clergy do not possess such influence.
Santeria is an offshoot of voodoo which has grown considerably in Cuba. The Santeria religion is structured tightly after Catholicism, while the objects of worship are the Dahomey, children of Obatala. They are worshipped in ways similier to the treatment of Catholic saints. The religion varies from traditional voodoo in the fact that it still remains secretive and prefers to remain seperated from outside religions. Santeria has no defined structures and the role of priests or priestesses are small if even there in Santeria communities. This is most likely due to the restriction of religious freedom in Cuba. Santeria has recently spread significantly in Miami and New York. Though attempting to remain separate, there exposure and positive influence have shed great positive light on Voodoo.
The mystique of voodoo has remained though action to dispell the negative connotations has made great advancements. A common word association with voodoo yields; Haiti, voodoo dolls, zombies, and tools often associated with black magic. Though orthadox voodoo does not practice the arts of voodoo dolls or envoking zombies, but the origins of both are quite intrigueing. Voodoo dolls were used as a mean of cursing or hexing an individual, most commonly a plantation owner. No current Shango or Mambo (priest or priestess) condones this act or grants it validity. It was never practiced religious and is primarily a folklore that has been abandoned by legitimate voodoo. No cases of violence have been linked to voodoo dolls. The term zombie means an individual who is resurrected after death by a voodoo priest or priestess. This resurrected individual will possess typical superhuman traits often associated with the undead in folklore (superhuman strength, resistance to injury). The zombie will be bound to his resurrectors will. In actuality, a zombie was a person gravely ill who was administered heavy narcotics as a means to keep them alive. In the poorly industrialized areas where voodoo emerged, medical utilities were scarce and of poor quality. Often, individuals revived were believed dead. Once resurrected by barely sublethal amounts of strong drugs, the individual would possess enormous strength and resistance to injury equivalent to that of a man on PCP. The individual would also be dependant on the priest to supply thier now life sustaining drug. This dependence is effectivly being bound to a masters will. In extreme cases the zombie would go through physical effects of drug addiction which leaves the individual looking corpse like.
Voodoo has been greatly misrepresented in American society. It is an honorable and thoughtful religion which should be commended for its tenacity through history and its involvement in the lives of so many. Voodoo is not the stuff myths and horror movies, rather it is a peaceful and loving religion which can benefit many more than only those devout to Obatala. It can be benefiscial to those who care about humanity