Religion plays an important and secular role in most cultures. It acts as a guide, a standard, in which people follow for the betterment of themselves. Religion helps guide actions, values and culture. It encourages people to believe in something outside of the hardships faced daily and promotes a sense of identity within society.
Voodoo is a major influence on the culture and development of certain communities. Taking root in Africa and transmitting its culture and practice to the Caribbean and finally into America, Voodoo’s rich culture has both frightened and intrigued the world. Today, Voodoo is popularized in New Orleans as well as surviving in religious tradition in Haiti and Africa.
Throughout the course of this paper, Voodoo will be examined in areas that allow an analysis to be made as to its role in modern society. Voodoo will be examined by its origin, its transmission and transformation in Haiti and finally addressing Voodoo in Christian dominated societies such as New Orleans. It will then be discussed how commercialization of a religion and culture can be negative, causing appropriation, commodification and racism.
- Origins of Voodoo
The exact origins of Voodoo are “elusive,” but the tradition continues to thrive in Africa and other parts of the world today (National Geographic 2008: 1). It is believed that Voodoo is derived from the Yoruba religions, finding its birth in Benin, Africa. The Yoruba religion is viewed as the “most salient surviving traditional African belief system in the New World (Fandrich: 775).” Voodoo stems from this religion that pays particular attention to the spirits of dead ancestors.
Voodoo, or “Vodun,” as it is referred to in Africa, gets its roots from the “Fon and Ewe people residing in present day Benin (Fandrich 2007: 779). This area gives reason as to the complicated culture differences within Voodoo. African tribes found themselves at war with one another, often taking slaves from other tribes. This allowed for a mixing of cultures from the Kongo, Togo and Benin, with “most being captured from the kingdom of Dahomey (Chicago 2016: 1.1).”
Voodoo ritual object of Dahomey people
The slaves who were captured in kingdoms in Africa would turn to their religion in times of crisis. That turn to religion gave Voodoo a chance to thrive. Voodoo’s “spiritual practices and traditions provided a vital means of mental and emotional resistance to bitter hardship” those slaves faced in their capturer’s kingdom (Chicago 2016: 1.1).
By mixing the people of Dahomey with other African cultures, Voodoo was constructed and certain aspects became key in the practice of the religion. Many of the tribes already had similar religious rituals and practices. The main focus of Voodoo then became “worship of the spirits of family ancestors, the use of singing, drumming and dancing, and the belief that the followers were possessed by immortal spirits (Chicago 2016: 1.1).” These elements of Voodoo are still seen today in Africa and the new world.
It was after the period of African’s enslavement of other Africans that Europeans began to take interest in people of different tribes for slave labor. By capturing and relocating many people of African tribes to the Caribbean, Voodoo began to grow and develop in different ways, particularly within Haiti.
(Video of present day voodoo in Africa)
- Voodoo in Haiti
Haitian Voodoo, spelled Vodou, takes its roots from its prior African heritage. The slaves brought from Africa to the Caribbean tried to hold their culture while being tormented by Europeans, both by labor and religion. Vodou, the Afro-Creolo tradition in Haiti, “developed under the yoke of slavery (Fandrich 2007: 780).” It was a symbol of resistance to the oppression put on Africans by European settlers.
Haitian vodou can credit its success and longevity to its role in the Haitian Revolution that allowed Haiti to be the first free country in the Caribbean. This religion “allowed former slaves to kill and expel their masters,” which started the launch to freedom (Fandrich 2007: 780). Vodou played a primary role in the success of the African people of Haiti.
On the night of the Haitian Revolution, “a voodoo ceremony was held in a place called Bois Caiman,” and gathered many slaves from the area together (Dominique 2010: 103). It was the cultural practice of unification for a cause, combined with their religion that can be credited with launching Haitians into revolutionary success.
(poem said on night of revolution)
Along with vodou’s association to independence, Haitian vodou played a unique role in developing the voodoo we see in the United States today. Because African slaves were taken from many different kingdoms with different practices and rituals, Haitian vodou was a combination of culture.
In Haiti today, a combination of divinities are seen from influences of different tribes. Both the Kongo tribe and the Dahomey tribe give rise to one of two major figures in Haitian vodou. On the Kongo side, we get characters like Bawon Calfou and Bawon Samdi. Calfou is the “spirit of the crossroads,” and is a brother to Samdi, who is the Iwa “ultimate spirit ruler of the dead” and the most powerful magician in the religion (Fandrich 2007: 783). These spirits aide in reaching with the dead and the Kongo tribe gives the most respect to these spirits.
On the Dahomey side, we commonly refer to a similar spirit by the name of Legba. This “mighty Iwa spirit” is regarded as the most powerful and is the first summoned in most vodou ceremonies (Fandrich 2007: 783). The emphasis for this tribe was placed on this entity and is now the most popularized spirit known in Haitian and American voodoo.
Haitian vodou was also influenced by Catholicism as the Europeans pressured slaves to convert to their religion. Haiti’s Nago divinities were subjected to Catholic influence. One major spirit, Ogoun Feraille, is “a symbolic representation of Saint Jacques Majeur, or Jacob the Elder, and is portrayed as a handsome knight in shining armor on horseback (Fandrich 2007: 785). The Haitians found this figure to be particularly influential in their war for independence. The use of Catholicism helped mold more divinities to fit into the Caribbean interpretation of the African religious culture.
Today, Haitians still practice vodou, combining their African heritage with the influence of Catholicism to create a new voodoo with relics and rituals unique to the their culture and world, while also giving Haitians a symbol of identity. Haitian vodou played a large role in the development of voodoo in New Orleans and the commodification of such a religion.
III. Voodoo in New Orleans
Louisiana is home to New Orleans, a city with a rich history of French influence as well as influence from the Caribbean and America. New Orleans gave way to a new form of voodoo. It fused “African-based religions” with American culture, creating voodoo, “a generic term for any form of spiritual beliefs and practices remotely associated with the Black continent (Fandrich 2007: 777).”
When the Haitian’s revolted against the French, winning their independence, the French lost a large profit in the New World. Angry, Napoleon sold the Louisiana purchase to the United States, doubling the size of the country and allowing for French culture to infiltrate the area. However, “there would be no Louisiana Purchase without the revolution (Fandrich 2007: 780). Because of the revolution, Haitians were able to obtain autonomy and come freely into United States territory.
Haitian refugees entered the New Orleans region in large numbers, which brought with them a religion seen as foreign to Americans (Fandrich 2007: 785). Voodoo was introduced into American society and first greeted with fear followed by intrigue. The “New Orleans African population was primarily from the Kongo,” so early voodoo had a “strong affinity for spirits of the dead,” which is still popularized in New Orleans today (Fandrich 2007: 786).
In early New Orleans voodoo, influences from Haiti can be seen in the rituals and practice. The main traceable divinity from Haiti was Legba. However, voodoo in the New World incorporated more Catholicism into their voodoo. Legba was combined with Saint Peter, which emphasized the importance of his figure by association with the heavenly gatekeeper yet maintained the emphasis on spirits of the dead in Haitian tradition (Fandrich 2007: 787).
At first, the combination of “Haitian influx and religious customs” and American culture amounted in saints and major religious figures being incorporated into the spirits and rituals (Fandrich 2007: 786). Over time, interest in voodoo went from fear to interest. In response to traditional American culture, New Orleans fired back with “their own neo-African counterculture religion” that has grown into present day American voodoo (Fandrich 2007: 785).
New Orleans voodoo then started to become less involved with its African origins, instead gearing its attention towards the growing white interest. The voodoo “lost its spiritual complexity” and began lacking African divinities, instead turning its divinities towards Catholicism for its white audience (Fandrich 2007: 785).
(One of many voodoo shops in New Orleans)
The switch began to happen in the 1900s, and gave new focus and understanding to American voodoo. New Orleans voodoo practitioners created “elaborate, magical practices” that did not conform with traditional voodoo ceremonies. They focused instead on spiritual work, putting emphasis on “Catholic saints,” with their main emphasis on “an almight God called Li Grand Zombi (Fandrich 2007: 786).” Practitioners dropped the importance of Legba and African divinities but combined spirits of the dead with these saints to appeal to a more American audience. This could be credited to the high “white-to-black population” that could cause discrepancies when translating and transforming voodoo (Fandrich 2007: 786).
The transition into more American voodoo was also accompanied by discussion of its basis in capitalism. Voodoo began being less about religion but rather entertainment, leading to a further shift of focus for practice and ritual. As soon as voodoo began becoming distinct in New Orleans, it faced the challenge of surviving capitalism and the commercial market.
- Commercialization and Conclusion
As white culture became more interesting, voodoo became less about religion and more about profiting. As aforementioned, voodoo was viewed with feelings of “abhorrence, fear, condemnation, cynicism, derision, exploitation, tolerance and interest (Long 2002: 86).” The latter feelings became the emotions that determined the fate of voodoo in modern America. Today, voodoo is a rich market for moneymaking and encompasses the city of New Orleans.
One way in which voodoo has suffered is through racism. Voodoo was originally scorned for having Black roots, and considered it to be “primitive and derogatory” as it did not have any aspects of European culture (Fandrich 2007: 788). That racism and misunderstanding of the religion of voodoo propelled American society to deconstruct their religion and transform it to be more relatable and profitable. White Americans thus benefitted from the misunderstanding of voodoo by ignoring the African history and focusing instead of the mystical, minimalizing the existence of black culture and promoting racist ideas about the religion.
(New Orleans voodoo deck; shows change with white influence on images and deities)
Along with racism plaguing the voodoo religion, appropriation and commodification cause conflict for the cultural aspects of voodoo. Prior to voodoo being perceived as completely entertainment, it was a place where people of African descent experienced their rituals and religion in purer forms.
Originally, hoodoo was an African American tradition of creating and using magic for issues. Whites often looked on this folklore with disapproval and upset, but when it was realized to be profitable, the view on hoodoo changed. Many whites “became hoodoo entrepreneurs and profited from the beliefs of their black customers (Long 2002: 88).” This use of black culture for a monetary gain farther separated the races, devaluing culture and beliefs of African Americans, creating a white superiority. This racism negatively affects both groups of people and continues to diminish the importance of voodoo religion and culture.
(Sample of hoodoo shop in New Orleans)
White people continued to appropriate and devalue voodoo culture. Many voodoo priests and priestesses were African Americans who participated in the religion for the religion. When whites became involved in voodoo, they realized the commercial value, and thus “voodoo as religion and voodoo as entertainment became blurred (Long 2002: 98).” With this blurring of religion and entertainment, voodoo was stripped of its cultural value and made into a commercial business.
This commercialization of voodoo can be seen in magic shops and voodoo stores scattered throughout New Orleans. Magic has always been associated with the mysticism of voodoo but shops developed out of white commercial interest. Pharmacists would create “magic shops” and would sell “magical powders, waters, and oils” which were concoctions of “powdered chalk, boric acid, alcohol, water or oil,” which offered no benefits to the consumer (Long 2002: 93). These pharmacists capitalized on African Americans who believed in voodoo as well as tourists fascinated by its mysticism.
Today, “most of the new voodoo entrepreneurs are white, cashing in on the desire of the outside experience,” which attracts tourists and voodoo followers alike (Long 2002: 95). This type of appropriation was used simply for capitalistic gain. Voodoo thus loses its culture and history and becomes a product of commodification for the majority white consumer who ignores the value of its African heritage and misunderstands the religion itself.
Voodoo started as a religion essential to the culture and unification of African people. It transmitted its value and history with its people who were enslaved in Haiti. There, voodoo transformed and grew from the multicultural understanding in Haiti. Voodoo then transmitted its concepts into America where it was meant with scowl and fascination. Overtime, voodoo transformed again into a more commercial product, focused rather on making money and mystifying people instead of promoting and understanding the African heritage and the religion itself.
Voodoo was commodified by whites who used racism to diminish the value of the African heritage surrounding the religion. They stripped voodoo of its origins and culture and transformed it into a profitable business, focusing on how to capitalize rather than understand. Through the subtle racism and focus on capitalistic gains, voodoo as it is known in the Western world is a commodification of African struggle and persistence, devalued of African ideals and westernized by Christianity, transforming it into a business entertaining and targeted for a white audience.
Chicago to New Orleans and back in the Internet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/webprojects/LiveMiss/Voodoo/chap1.htm
Dominique, Rachel B. (2010). “The Social Value of Voodoo Throughout History: Slavery, Migrations and Solidarity.” Museum International, 99-105.
Fandrick, Ina J. (2007). “Yoruba Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo.” Journal of Black Studies, 775-791.
Long, Carolyn M. (2002). “Perceptions of New Orleans Voodoo: Sin, Fraud, Entertainment and Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emerging Religions, 86-101.
National Geographic. (2008). “The African Origins of Voodoo.” Retrieved March 30, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKUHDNK24ug