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Switch to Forum Live View What is Vodou (Vodoo)?
6 years ago  ::  Nov 03, 2007 - 11:43AM #1
Beliefnetsabee
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Voodoo
Or Vodou, is the African-Christian new religion born in Haiti, whose followers "serve the divine spirits" in life and rituals and accept possession by those spirits for healing and spiritual guidance. The word voodoo derives from the language of the Dahomean Fon communities, in whose traditional religion vodu or vodun is a "divine spirit." Originally a term used only by outsiders--and then often with a pejorative sense --"Vodou" is now acknowledged as the proper designation for the complex beliefs and practices among the majority of the populace of Haiti.

Voodoo began as the clandestine religion of enslaved African sugar-plantation workers in Haiti in the seventeenth century, but its early history is preserved only in scattered eighteenth-century colonial records and ordinance codes. The reports of covert meetings, dances, funeral practices, and even trance possession among enslaved and freed Africans indicate that they preserved ancient traditions in the face of enormous obstacles; the development of Voodoo is itself a tribute to the spirit and stamina of those early devotees.

Rooted in the West African Yoruba, Fon, and Angolan communities, as well as in French Roman Catholicism, Voodoo served as the organization and sustenance of the slave revolt leading to Haitian independence and as the symbol for Haitian autonomy and nationalism as the only black republic in the Americas. It has primarily continued African priestly roles, ritual themes, symbolism, and pantheons of named female spirits (especially Ezili) and male ones (Ogou, Damballah-Wedo, Legba). The realities of Haitian life and place have reshaped the details of African mythology connected with each spirit, as well as the concepts of multiple souls and the afterlife. Beyond the importance of African doctrine, symbolism, and fragments of language, a special reverence is maintained for Africa itself as homeland and divine residence as well as symbol for the central virtues of simplicity and directness in rituals and life. Voodoo theology parallels traditional medieval Christianity, for its followers acknowledge a high creator deity, Bondye (Bon dieu), but invoke the intermediary spirits for intercession in human affairs. It is only the intermediaries--identified individually with Christian saints or sacred places--who descend to "mount" their "horses," their followers, during possession rituals. Roman Catholicism provides the ritual framework for the lives of Voodoo members as well, for they not only follow its traditional liturgical calendar for scheduling pilgrimages and lesser ceremonies but also participate in the common rituals of baptism, marriage, and the Mass. Roman Catholic prayers, some still in Latin, form a significant component of some Voodoo rituals, as do other lesser aspects and ritual objects from traditional Catholic festivals.

The divine spirits (loa or lwa) of Voodoo occupy separate pantheons or nations; two of these, the Rada, whose spirits are generous and benevolent, and the Petro, whose strong spirits evince terrible powers, dominate worship in urban centers. The higher powers (lemiste) are associated with natural dimensions or places, such as sacred springs or cemeteries, and are joined in the spirit world by souls of the dead and ancestral spirits (lemo) and sacred twins (lemarasa). Individual worshipers, drawn to individual spirits by necessity or similarities in personality or temperament, may choose among them for personal devotion but must not neglect those ancestors and spirits traditionally venerated in the family. Voodoo rituals range from simple devotional acts, such as the lighting of candles with accompanying prayers, to family observances for the family dead to elaborate rituals enhanced by large meals, drumming and singing, and exuberant dance.

The spiritual leaders in the Voodoo community are the male hungans and female mambos; in their religious roles, they perform divination and healing rituals for individual members, as well as oversee all training and calendrical ceremonies. As elders and teachers, they guide the possession trance dances, which allow the individual divine spirits to be present among their followers, to receive worship, and to offer healing and counsel. In Haiti, rural communities continue Voodoo as a family-centered religion firmly tied to traditional agricultural life, while urban centers have interwoven a wider variety of practices, some structured and formal--including rituals of initiation, funeral rites, pilgrimage to Catholic shrines, and festivals--some less so, including not only divination, but also the making of amulets for luck and protection.

Novels, films, and newspaper reports have sensationalized Voodoo or "hoodoo," falsely identifying it with cannibalism, sorcery, and evil potions. Scholars suggest that the lurid image of Voodoo is the expression of racist hatred of the oppressors for their victims, shaped by their fears of reprisals and revolts. Followers of Voodoo acknowledge that some manipulate its power, and they distinguish between their religion--with its traditional and salutary powers and duties--and the "work of the left hand," malevolent magical practices undertaken for mere personal gain.

The recent history of Voodoo has seen not only several attempts at its suppression by the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti but also recurring efforts there to politicize the religion through co-optation of its leaders, pilgrimage sites, and symbols while unifying its widely varying practices. Haitian Voodoo has spread to several cities in North America, with waves of migration to Miami, New York, and Montreal. Voodoo followers are also a significant presence in New Orleans, where the religion, now commingled with American Christian folk culture, was revitalized by legendary African-American leaders.

From The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. Copyright by The American Academy of Religion. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
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