Voodoo is a term used to describe a variety of polytheistic, panentheistic, and hierarchical monotheistic belief systems rooted in West Africa. Its more accurate name is Vodun, which means the spirits or essences (of nature).
At its core, it is somewhat agnostic, in that the vast majority of its adherents believe that it is impossible to accurately define or imagine the Supreme God. So rather than treat the Supreme God as a Santa Claus type figure who it’s okay to make our petty requests to, practitioners petition the Lwa or Orishas instead. This serves the dual purpose of avoiding blasphemy and working with nature, rather than against it or in spite of it, to fulfil one’s desires or get things done properly.
Because of political, cultural, and social changes and upheavals, Vodun is not practiced in the same way it was in pre colonial times, even in Africa. Some changes were for the better, and some for the worse, and some are a matter of opinion. Overall though, the vast majority of practitioners today are balanced people being true to their time tested ancestral faiths.
What It Is and What It Ain’t
One thing that needs to be made very clear about Vodun is that it is practiced in different ways in different regions in Africa and abroad. How it is practiced in southern Benin is different from how it is practiced just an hour drive away, and also different from how it is practiced in various places in Nigeria, Ghana, etc.
There are a few things about it that are consistent though. There is the belief that there is or may be a Supreme Being that no human mind can ever fathom. Whether or not one believes that it exists as a being with a kind of Superpersonality is left to the individual. It is not considered a relevant question. If it does exist as we humans think of existence, it exists in all dimensions and is above space and time. What is relevant are the forces of Nature that we can observe some aspects of, though total understanding of them is also out of the human reach. Some call this Ultimate Be-ing Mawu-Lisa, Olodumare, Segbe, Nyame, or God. It depends on the region, language, and to some degree their level of exposure to other belief systems including Islam and Christianity. Some did not consider the concept of the Almighty relevant for so long, because It is Unfathomable, that the idea simply did not enter their minds, so names of what some would call technically “lesser gods” were used to describe it once they were re exposed to the concept through Judaic faiths.
Then there is the belief in an Emissary of at least the concept of the Almighty. This is the father-mother aspect of whatever the Force of Creation/Existence is. The fact that we exist on whatever level that may be is enough to justify the need for some psychological and spiritual representative of the Force of Creation. This idea has been beneficial to mankind in many ways, one of which is to keep us mindful of the whole of Creation and our duty to it as good residents of the planet Earth. Some call this Emissary Obatala.
Then there is the belief in a Gate Keeper who, depending on the region/tradition, is at the same time a sort of trickster. The reason it is both is because it governs perception. It creates both useful illusions of division and the dangerous illusions that naturally select the foolish or maladaptive out of the realm of the living. Some call the Gate Keeper Eshu, Elegua, or Legba.
Then, and this is very important, there is the belief that Ancestors must be honored. Before there was conscious knowledge of DNA and genetics, West Africans understood the importance that the physical and psychological and spiritual traits of the Ancestors, to those living in the present. In practice, this means that except in some extremely rare cases (that I personally have never heard of) the line of priesthood is ancestral. Those who are not in an ancestral line are able to serve as priests to a degree, but they will never be in the official line of priests in the vast majority of places in Africa. They can only receive some degree of endorsement to lead and teach others in their area. Some practices and knowledge are exclusive to ancestral priests. Some call the Ancestors Egungun, and some Kulito, and some other terms, depending on their language.
The belief that Nature itself is sacred. It is not that the mountain has a Spirit. The mountain is a Spirit-and-a-physical-body. Scientifically, this could be described as the idea of multidimensional existence. So when a ritual object has been made and imbued with the ashe or energy of a particular Force of Nature, it does not merely represent it. It at least in part, embodies that Force of Nature. Some call these Forces of Nature Orishas, some Orixas, some Alusi, etc. It depends on language and traditions. The importance of multidimensional existence or the sacredness of Nature is central to being ridden by the Orishas. Since we are Soul-bodies, the Forces of Nature can be personified in us at their will even if as humans we are unable to fully grasp the idea of the will of a Force of Nature. For this reason, we also generally believe that the person does not choose which Force of Nature is at their head or makes contact with them. The Force of Nature chooses the human to head, ride, or to make contact with at a given moment.
Points of Contention
It has come to my awareness that there is actually an argument about what is real or legitimate Vodun and what is not. As I am made to understand by Africans in Africa, these arguments are simply not had in Africa because each adherent practices according to their local ancestral traditions or local adopted traditions if they have been displaced by war, poverty, or some other tragedy, or by feeling “called home” to a different area.
When a person from Africa moves away, they generally keep their home traditions and may add to them adopted deities from the pantheon local to where they live. Some in and outside Africa add deities they feel a particular affinity towards or who become part of their local reality by way of intermarriage or because that deity manifested and helped someone. Some are reclaimed or syncretized for a variety of reasons. How ever and when ever this is done, people find a balance that is respectful to both African and other belief systems and Ancestors.
No matter where Africans who were born in Africa or raised by Africans close to their home cultures are though, they do not forget the importance and practical legitimacy of the ancestral priesthood in Africa. One living and working outside Africa may function at a priestly level because there are no ancestral priests available, but one does not claim that just because they are being sane and practical about it, they are officially priests by the same rights as those in the ancestral line who have done the appropriate passages.
What some have done to cope with the low numbers of or lack of ancestral priests is to create diaspora orders with an independent hierarchy, structure, and traditions. So long as they are practicing along sound guidelines of the core of the Vodun belief systems, few if any Africans would see a problem with this. One of those core guidelines, of course, would be that the line of priesthood in Vodun is still ancestral, and that your having created a new order or house does not negate or override the legitimacy of those who have been practicing and living Vodun for the past 10,000 years.
Does Ancestral Mean Racist?
Some believe that the insistence on respect for the ancestral priesthood in Africa is racist. These are mostly people who do not understand what race and ethnicity is, and also believe that when one mentions this, they are saying that diaspora orders, systems, and houses are not legitimate. They do not understand that an African in the diaspora whose ancestry is mixed or not traceable or who the divination says is unsuitable has no more chance of becoming a higher level priest than the usual “yes you’ve been faithful to the principles now go make the world a better place” endorsement than a person of European ancestry. Those of us who discuss this issue in depth do not even call this a “glass ceiling”. It is a “glass floor”. The same glass floor applies to all who are not in the ancestral line equally, with no discrimination related to color.
The difference though, between Africans in the diaspora and others however, is that when an African in the diaspora practices Vodun, certain specifics of genetic features, cultural background, and historical and personal experience will come into play that do not in a person of other recent ancestry. We all originally trace back to Africa, but some things happened along the way.
In practical ways, a dark skinned person with very curly hair is going to have different experiences from Nature than a very pale skinned person with straight hair. Both can be just as right or just as wrong, but the former is going to experience the physical aspects of Nature in an African way while the latter will need to work at this to understand. Doing that work is a good thing. One of the steps that must be taken though, is understanding that work needs to be done for one to relate well to their brothers and sisters in Vodun.
Also, where a person of European ancestry most likely came to Vodun within a diaspora order or by way of books, the internet, or friendship, a great many Africans in the diaspora were born into Afrocentric systems. In an Afrocentric system, there is no hierarchy but the African hierarchy, and everyone outside Africa establishes relationships with those in Africa, and otherwise does the best they can with what they’ve got. Elders are family and associated elders, or in the case of those mixed with Native Americans, tribal elders. Someone’s rank within a diaspora system is meaningless, and less than meaningless if that person is so out of touch with Africans in the diaspora or in general that they do not understand or participate in African or diaspora culture.
I have noted a growing and very disturbing trend of some practitioners of European ancestry deeming Africans in the diaspora frauds because they concede to no hierarchy but those in Africa or those of a specific temple in Africa. Because they understand that Africa is their homeland or at least one of them, and try to do right by them, understanding that they will never be priests of the ancestral lines but loving the Orishas anyway because it’s not about rank for them, they have been subjected to some degrading and rather racist attacks from European descended practitioners who think their membership and rank in a diaspora order entitles them to look down on Africans who are doing right by their home regions or temples.
I myself was recently banned from a Facebook group for stating very truthfully that some people were out of touch with Africa and were “White to the bone” in essentially stealing from and then twisting an African faith and claiming dominion of it. I was called a racist for combating racism. Ironic, is it not? So I created the Afrocentric Vodun group so there would be at least one place on the internet for people of all ethnicities who understand they are adherents of an African faith.
Related Belief Systems
Mami Wata – a pantheon of deities worshipped and/or honored in west and central Africa. Vodun is one of the child systems of Mami Wata, and overlaps quite a bit though some adhere to Mami Wata traditions and paths independent of what is now known as Vodun.
It’s a neat coincidence that it sounds a lot like “Mommy Water”. Its original meaning though, is more like Truth (all life comes from) Water. The deities are mostly female, and priesthood is passed matrileneally. There are still Mami Wata adherents and priestesses in Togo and other areas of west Africa.
Muti (Umuthi) – indigenous southern African healing and spirituality. It got a bad rap recently because of some simple minded psychos who take things too far and commit murders and mutilations. The people who do that are charlatans, not real healers, as a true believer believes that killing an innocent person will bring the wrath of them and their ancestors. Those doing it today are just materialistic idiots who believe that body parts of children will bring them more wealth or protect them from the natural consequences of their actions.
In truth, much like Vodun, adherents of Umuthi believe that there is no protection from the natural consequences of one’s actions. The Supreme God is not a Santa Claus, and neither are the other spirits. If you do evil, you get evil. If you do good, you might not always get what you want, but you’ll always at least have peace.
Kala Jaadu (also spelled Jadoo) – Middle Eastern magic and pre Islamic spirituality. It is practiced and believed in with a high level of secrecy.
Conversion to Islam was not as complete in the Middle East as some may believe. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be unto him) himself was also an esoteric. There are also a few different Islamic flavors within the standard Sunni, Sufist, and Shiite sects. For spiritual guidance and help, some problems needed solving with things other than the usual Muslim practices. Some old practices were repackaged within the Islamic theology.
One of the most popular ideas within Kala Jaadu is the belief in djinn. Djinn are described as being made of fire or as higher dimensional beings, depending who you ask. Some are powerful and can control forces of nature, where others are not really that interested in this, and just do occasional mischief.
Some practitioners are able to communicate with, and claim to be able to control djinn. Be wary of those who say they are actually able to control them. Djinn have free wills the same as humans. If they like someone, they might let them believe that, but they are there only because they choose to be.
Wathanism – Arabian Paganism that focuses on deities from the Arabian penninsula.
Candomblé – Candomble is a Brazilian Bahia faith that is a mixture of Yoruba, Roman Catholic, and Native South American faiths. In Candomble, as in Haitian Vodou, many of the Orishas are conflated with Roman Catholic saints. The associated saints are considered something like avatars of an Orisha.
Santeria – Santeria, also known as the Lucumi/Lukumi or Regla de Ocha is the belief system of Afro-Cubans. It is a combination of Yoruba, Roman Catholic, and Native Carribean “Indian” beliefs.
Palo Mayombe – The Palo systems (Las Reglas de Congo) are Cuban and area traditions developed by descendants of people from Central Africa (Congo, Angola, etc.). Though there is some overlap with adherents, it is not the same or a companion of Lukimi/Santeria. Palo is the Spanish word for “stick”, and it is believed that this category of belief systems was called such because of the importance they place on various trees and herbs for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Palo is not “the dark side of Santeria”. It is its own set of belief systems and its intent depends on the practitioner. It just may seem “dark” because of cultural misunderstandings and discomfort with Nature.
Haitian Vodou – Haitian Vodou is a combination of west African, Roman Catholic, and Arawak beliefs. It has a unduly bad reputation as “black magic” mostly due to racism and fear. It was one of the driving forces in the Haitian Revolution, and so Haitian Vodou is representative in the European American mind of Black slaves successfully ousting their masters. To this day, the idea that there is something in which they are not superior, makes racists shake in their jackboots.
Kumina – This is an African derived faith similar to Vodun that is practiced in Jamaica. They have events called Pokumina or Pukumina that are dances where the spirits of nature and ancestors come down and possess the dancers. Pukumina comes from the Twi word “po” which means “small”, and the word Kumina for the faith itself. Because of misunderstanding the linguistic roots and the nature of the dance though, it is often referred to as “Pocomania”: small madness.
Hoodoo – A North American approach to magic and mysticism that combine elements of African, Native American, and European folk medicine and traditions. It is “baptist” in the sense that mostly non Catholics practice it, so they don’t usually use the Saints as covers for the Orishas. Some do use Angels though. The Angels apparently don’t mind this because it works.
Bible verses and Christian practices are a common part of root work in Hoodoo, along with a variety of American traditional practices that developed through time or borrowed from old world cultures.
Obeah – Obeah’s roots are mostly Igbo. Its origins are in the Igbo belief system called Odinani. It was mixed quite a bit with the Yoruba and some Caribbean belief systems in the Americas, but the style of practice was already quite mixed before. Now, it is basically African-Carribean folk medicine, but Obeah practitioners take from any and all systems that work. They tend to be African centered, but eclectic and esoteric.
There was a wide chain of information stretching as far as ancient Canaan through north and central Africa, to west Africa. Historically, Odinani and later Obeah practitioners drew from a variety of sources.
Unlike other systems that often have a more strict hierarchy, and differentiate between the initiated and non initiated, Obeah people are quite often very solitary, and make their status or fame from their record of service. It is less a belief system in and of itself than it is an approach to Vodun and/or Odinani. Some are even more keen to a Nubian/Khemet style of practice and ceremony.
Quimbanda – A modern urban Afro-Brazilian spiritual and magical system with a pantheon of Exus and Pomba Giras or incorporated deities. Like most other systems, there is no one Quimbanda, but what’s consistent is the focus on Exu and Pomba Gira. Many occult practices have been absorbed and given a Quimbanda flavor, so don’t be surprised to see any deity from anywhere given an Exu or Pomba Gira prefix.
Kindoki and Brujeria – In the Congo, where some of the practices originated, “kindoki” means “witchcraft”, which may or may not be conscious or purposeful. In Spain and Portugal, Brujeria also means “witchcraft”, but it is purposeful. In the diaspora, Kindoki and Brujeria are a mix of African, Native American, Spanish, and other Latin mysticism and magic. It is mostly practiced in Central America and the southwestern United States. Much like Obeah, it is very eclectic, varies from place to place, and mostly focusing on the sorcery. A practitioner may be of any religion normally, though most are Catholic.
On the surface, it may seem similar to Santeria, but there is the incorporation of pre colonial practices and beliefs from Central America from the Aztec and Maya. It is also usually practiced by solitaries or small groups or families.
Orishaism – This is an umbrella term for worshiping the Orishas, but usually used to describe the beliefs of Africans and others in the diaspora who do not have known family ties in west Africa, but worship the Orishas, and are not affiliated with larger communities. It may end up being the title for a western African diaspora movement of system of its own as more African Americans become disenchanted with other groups.