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voodoo, wax dolls, coincidence, Hispaniola

History of Voodoo

Author: Lena Santos

The notoriously perceived notion of Voodoo as practiced in the western world is that of grotesquely molded wax dolls with pins sticking out of them. Voodoo is also conceived as a higher form of black magic whose practitioners are more likely be cast as part of a horror movie. Voodoo, if regarded in the light of this visualization is akin to the practice of witchcraft and evil deeds and thoughts. However, much as we want to think that voodoo is exotically malevolent the truth is Voodoo or Vodun or Vodoun is a form of religion.

What is Voodoo? Voodoo is an African word that means “spirit”. The basic philosophy of the religion is that everything in the world and even the universe is related or connected. It teaches that nothing happens by chance –that everything happens for a reason and not merely by coincidence. Voodoo teaches its practitioners to understand the normal processes of life including its spiritual character.

When the first slaves out of Africa were traded in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the first batch reached its shore in 1492 thanks to Christopher Columbus. The slave trade would not have been realized if the indigenous Tainos of Hispaniola were not murdered for their refusal to serve as slaves of the conquering Spanish and then later French. The slave trade between Central Africa and the West started in 1510. By 1615, the first slaved reached the shore of the New World in what is known today as the state of Virginia. In 1697 the French in the Caribbean and the New World (United States) needed more slaves for they were literally “worked to death”. The few thousand African slaves grew to a staggering half a million and with such a great number as that, cohesion was inevitable.

The slaves from Africa came from different tribes of the continent. Torn from their families and from what was familiar to them, these slaves found solace in their religions and beliefs. The diversity in the cultures, languages, religions and beliefs were combined and developed into the basic structure of present-day Voodoo when these different tribes found commonalities in their diversities and started to invoke their spirit gods and practiced each other’s beliefs.

The Age of Reformation has started in Europe in the 16th century. This means that Protestantism barely dug its roots implicating that the French and Spanish who started the slave trade were Roman Catholics. The French and Spanish masters forbade the practice of the slaves’ religion. Death was the penalty for those caught practicing the African religion. These “masters” forcibly “baptized” their slaves into Christianity or Roman Catholicism in particular.

The African slaves saw a parallel between their religion and Roman Catholicism. As their Catholic masters prayed to saints to intercede to a higher God in their behalf, the African slaves invoked the help of Loa, spirits under god defined by their affinity to different matters concerning family, happiness, love, health, work, justice, wealth, health and more. The slave population began to mask their beliefs and rituals in Roman Catholicism. The existing Taino Indians also contributed in the evolution of the practice of Voodoo specifically in the healing arts. The European slaves brought by their masters to the New World and the Caribbean introduced black magic to the African slaves thus eventually integrating it to Voodoo.

In 1730 Voodoo emerged in Haiti. This was brought about when in 1729 the Dahomey tribe in Africa bartered their Ewe prisoners for European goods. Both tribes integrated snake worship in their rituals. Some Dahomeys were also sold as slaves that in due time priests from both tribes were sold and were en route to Haiti and the New World. Within a few years of their arrival these priests were able to found temples called hounfors and in the process were able to progress in spite of opposition from the French and the Roman Catholics churches.

In 1809 a large group of Haitians who migrated to Cuba during the Haitian revolution (1790-1800) once again found themselves displaced. They decided to migrate to New Orleans bringing with them their slaves. These African-Haitian slaves brought their religion with them and merged it with the local slave population. The “new blend” of voodoo thrived as the unique cultural blend of French, Spanish and Indian in New Orleans was conducive. The New Orleans Voodoo was a mixture of the religious beliefs of Africans from Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria who were initially brought to New Orleans, Louisiana by the Companies de Indes.

In the Caribbean islands like Haiti, the newly amalgamated religion came to be known as
Santeria or the worship of saints. In the New World specifically in New Orleans, Voodoo retained its name.

The practice of Voodoo might seem to be a hodgepodge of beliefs and customs from black magic, animistic spirits, spirituality, trances and all sorts of rituals. It would seem that Haitian Voodoo is more potent (in terms of curses) than New Orleans Voodoo. Voodoo has been (and still is by some) looked upon as a form of witchcraft. For the original Africans, Voodoo was a way of life, their natural medicine and their link to their homeland and past.

Modern Voodoo has taken new directions. On one side are spiritual reverends and “mothers” who have established their own churches. There are the Hoodoos who work superstitions, spells, witchcraft and other occult into their practice of the Voodoo. There are the traditionalists who are out in search of a higher level of consciousness to open up themselves to the god they believe in.

For people of other faiths, Voodoo seems to be a pagan belief. For those who practice Voodoo, other faiths and beliefs might seem to be a curiosity too. However, it is interesting to note, that all faiths believe in the only one God.

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