Welcome to the Order of the Sacred Star! This Pagan/Wiccan group, based in Winnipeg, Canada, is committed to teaching the Craft to all those who wish to learn. Our goal is to provide a complete and fulfulling learning experience. Our public classes are offered through the Winnipeg Pagan Teaching Circle.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exploring Voodoo: The History of Vodou

Although the word Voodoo tends to conjure images of zombies, pins stuck in dolls, animal sacrifices, priests drinking blood, etc., it’s not exactly a realistic portrait of what Voodoo truly is. In fact, because of the images associated with this word, some practitioners prefer the term Vodou, among other terms.

The Origins of Vodou

Vodou came from the tribal practices and beliefs of the slaves who were brought to Haiti from West Africa. In the 17th century, slaves bound for the West Indies were taken from over one hundred different African ethnic groups. The beliefs and customs of all these groups combined to form the beginnings of Vodou. The two groups who had the greatest influence by far were the Fon and the Yoruba.

Beliefs and Practices of Vodou

The most important religious practice among these groups was ancestral worship. By remembering their ancestors and passing down their knowledge from generation to generation they ensured that their religious traditions would live on.

The Fon believed in hundreds of immortal spirits called vodu. Because the people had personal relationships with the spirits, they needed to communicate with the vodu on a regular basis. Ritual enabled them to talk to the spirits. The most important elements of the tribal rituals were:
  • dancing, drumming and chanting to communicate with the spirits
  • animal sacrifices made as offerings to the spirits
  • a priest or priestess who interpreted messages from the spirits
  • possession of the bodies of participants in ritual by the spirits
The main purpose of the ritual was to communicate with the vodu and receive their guidance in making important decisions. They did this by communicating indirectly with the spirits via the priest/priestess. The priests and priestesses helped their followers determine who their personal vodu were and also interpreted the messages from the vodu for them.

Priests and priestesses were chosen for their ability to connect with the spirits. They were said to have inherited this talent from their mothers or fathers. They were “born into priesthood”. Priests became the religious and community leaders of the slaves. In the times of slavery, any rebellious priest was usually sold by their ‘owners’ to prevent them from “sowing the seeds of dissent” in that area.

The Connection Between Christianity and Vodou

Despite the numerous spirits the Vodoun communicate with, they believe in only one God. The spirits are the immortal souls of their ancestors, not gods themselves. That is why the spirits are honored and served rather than worshipped like gods.

Christianity was forced on the slaves to rid them of their “superstitions”. Their religion, in other words. Because of this, the Catholic Church saw the conversion of the slaves as justification for slavery itself. The belief was that by enslaving these people, they were saving their souls.

However the Church’s efforts backfired on them. The slaves found the Christian religion to be the perfect cover to hide their true religious practices. Because of the days of using Catholicism to hide their true religion, many Vodoun still have images of Catholic saints on their altars.

However it’s not the saints they are worshipping. The pictures are just that — pictures representing pre-existing African spirits. Each major spirit of Vodou was matched with a Catholic saint based on similarity. An example would be Saint Patrick, with the image of him driving the snakes out of Ireland, being identified with Danbala, a snake spirit.

Vodou took on other things from Catholicism as well. Catholic prayers and hymns were incorporated into rituals. Candles, crosses and other symbols appeared on Vodoun altars, although they had very different meanings. They even took communion wafer and holy water to guard against danger and evil magick.

Obviously, there is much more to the history of Vodou than has been described here. It would be nearly impossible to explore the various history and evolution of Vodou. Instead, the purpose of this overview is only to generate an interest in Vodou and its practices. Further information, if desired, can be sought.

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