Contrary to popular belief, Voodoo is far more complex and often times benevolent than media would have you think. Years of television and speculative press have shrouded this religion in layers of misconstrued hearsay and mystery. Speak the word voodoo’ and most often you conjure up the stereotypical image of a woman wearing a tignon, rattling a stick or drinking blood to raise zombies from the grave.
This damaging and sadly enduring vision has persisted amongst those unwilling to look a little closer into the fascinating traditions and rich spiritual landscape that comprises this religion.
The voodoo that we know today was born from African traditions brought to the west by forced emigrations, and later cogitated and mingled with catholic practices and Native American influences. It is as multifaceted and organic in its dimensions as the region from which it hails, and variations in geography create variations in the practice. You will not find the same voodoo in New Orleans that you will find in parts of Haiti or the Caribbean islands.
Quite literally, the word voodoo’ translates in to the word spirit’, the concept of spirit being the foundation that faith is built upon. Varying articulations and personifications of the all mighty make up the Loa, or spirits, and much like saints these individual spirits can be appealed to and prayed to for guidance in particular situations, assistance and hope when hope is lost. When slavery flourished in the southern half of the United States, and brutal slave owners forbade their working men to worship in a way that was natural to them, these Loa spirits underwent a major syncretism, and took on the faces of many popular catholic saints like St. Anthony and St. Peter.
Voodoo is not to be confused with hoodoo, which is a form of traditional folk magic found in the southern half of the United States. While some voodoo practitioners blur the lines between hoodoo and voodoo by employing both methods, it is important to be aware of the distinction. Generally, some form of folk magic can be found throughout all cultures in the world.
For the oppressed peoples sold into slavery and the harassed free people of color, the survival of this connection to the spirit world played a vital role in their own emotional survival. Over time, voodoo developed into a network that acted as a community-sustaining way of life. Though slavery was abolished and the war won by the north, it would still be a century until equal rights were gained by a vast portion of the United States population.
By this time you might be wondering what these practices really entail- and let me say first, without a doubt, that all voodoo rituals begin with intent. Whether it be your intention to appeal to the spirits for assistance, or to honor them and ask for their blessings, you must have faith in what you are doing in order for it to work.
Traditionally, in a ritual where the entire congregation is involved, the worshipers come together to eat and drink before the dancing begins, taking a bit of time to socialize and enjoy company. The festivities usually take place around a central altar, which is made up of religious icons pertinent to the ritual like statues of saints. Tokens of faith left by members of the congregation are surrounded by a volley of candles. Sometimes food is also left to honor the particular spirit or spirits that will be appealed to during the ritual, along with flowers or photographs.
After everyone is fed, the dancing begins, usually accompanied by drumming and singing or chanting. This combination of rhythmic focus and constant body movement can put some worshipers in to a trace like state where they are capable of receiving the spirit, a curious display of human strength and simultaneous vulnerability.
The worshiper acts as a living body at the spirit’s whim, and if only for a short time, the spirit can enjoy some earthly pleasures of the flesh. Some practitioners of the voodoo religion have even been known to perform miraculous feats under spirit possession, like safely eating broken glass or walking through fire.
Many practitioners of voodoo speak of being two headed, having one head in this world and one head in the next. A head to anticipate needing to pay the light bill, and a head to anticipate the movement of spirit needed to draw that money to you. This concept illustrates the crucial idea that two different types of consciousness can work together within one human mind. A marriage of the practical physical realm and the spiritual intangible realm together, a perfect balance embodied in humanity. When these things are in harmony, all things are possible, and there are many ways to bring about this harmony through various types of rituals.
Another, smaller type of voodoo ritual is one in which a priestess or priest is consulted, usually for many of the same reasons that you might pray to a patron saint or spirit.
These reasons can include everything from financial concerns to romantic quarrels to legal matters to lost jewelry. Sometimes the consulted priestess will send the patron away with instructions and materials to carry out their own ritual. Other times the priestess will perform a ritual herself on behalf of the patron, a technique loosely defined as sympathetic magic.
Some techniques used in these consultations include the use of gris-gris bags, (also called mojo’ bags by some) which is a small charm bag generally worn about the person somewhere, which contains talismans, herbs, symbols of love or prosperity, depending on the bag’s purpose. The use of poppets is also a familiar icon, however the infamous voodoo doll’ is not limited entirely to voodoo alone. Many cultures are found to use poppets in their folk magic, as far back or civilization has gone. Sometimes candles are used in prayer, anointed with specially blended oils that the priestess will send home with the patron. These ritual acts and tools symbolize the physical reality of the practitioner’s intent, helping the practitioner to call their intent into being with more concentrated power.
The truth of the voodoo ritual is that it is about feeling. It is about love and sustenance and being alive, about connecting to the mysterious and the unknown. If you are feeling adventurous, create an altar. Invite your family and friends into your home. Feed them, drink with them, dance with them, and then you will see a little bit of the magic that has driven this religion forward for hundreds of years.