Voodoo, more accurately spelled Vodou, is perhaps the most demonized religion in the world. Its followers are branded as devil worshipers and occultists. Kreol explores the truth about Vodou in a simple, understandable manner.

Religious beliefs create dramatic divides among people from different cultures around the world. Throughout human civilization, nations have fought wars with one another rooted in the differences between particular religions. To this day, the world struggles with conflicts stemming from religious beliefs. The ongoing conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours is a perfect example. While many of the world’s various religions are generally understood by those who do not practise it, there are other religions that are demonized based upon misunderstanding.

Vodou, more commonly referred to by the Anglicized name Voodoo, is undoubtedly the most misunderstood religion in the world. There are certainly smaller, tribal belief systems that millions are unfamiliar with, but millions around the world know of Vodou. However, to know of vodou is very different than knowing about Vodou.

This religion has very little in common with its depiction in popular culture. From the belief system of its followers to the ceremonies they celebrate, vodou is worthy of an honest assessment that exposes its true nature.

Vodou’s Origin

The precise point in history at which Vodou emerged is murky, but many educational and cultural leaders believe its roots date back some 10,000 years to the African continent. Vodou is believed to have originated from West African Vodun. The contemporary concept of Vodou is most often associated with Haiti.

Haitian Vodou originated with the African slaves brought to Haiti. French colonisers actively repressed religious practise among slave populations on the island, even forcing slaves to convert to Christianity. Although it is descended from West African Vodun, Haitian Vodou incorporates symbolism and beliefs from religions such as the Taino cultures of the Caribbean, Roman Catholic Christianity (practised by the French), and even Freemasonry.

What is Vodou?

In many Western cultures, Haitian Vodou is referred to simply as voodoo. However, Haitian Vodouists (those who practise Vodou) refer to their religion with the Vodou spelling to differentiate their beliefs from Louisiana Voodoo and hoodoo.

Vodou is a religion just like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. However, unlike these religions, there is no scripture or governing authority in Vodou. Instead, the religion is one that is focused within a community to offer support for individual experiences and personal empowerment.

Contrary to common cultural depictions, Vodou is not a morbid or violent religion. Those who practise this religion are not devil worshipers, occultists, sorcerers, or witchdoctors. They are individuals who believe in a set of deities and practices that govern their daily lives.

Vodou’s Structure

Vodou is a religion with one God. Vodouists believe in the existence of a supreme being named Bondye. First and foremost, it is crucial that outsiders understand follower’s view of the world. For Vodouists, there are two spheres in this world. People believe in both the visible world which they inhabit, and the invisible world which their deceased ancestors inhabit. These two worlds are intertwined, with death serving as a transition from the visible to invisible world.

In Vodou, predecessors are ever-present in the invisible world as spirits. Their ancestors watch over their lives in the visible world and inspire them in daily life. However, there is a need to connect across that divide. This is where the structure of Vodou’s deities comes into play.

Bondye is seen as an all-knowing deity who cannot be bothered with the concerns of individual beings in the visible world. Because Bondye is believed to be unreachable by his followers, and the power of the ancestors is limited, Vodouists pray to lesser deities, known as loa. These loa embody various aspects of human life in the visible world. These aspects include representing human personalities, concerns, and locales. For example, the loa Ogun is a deity for warriors.
Vodouists pray to specific loa in an effort to seek counsel regarding issues in the visible world that the particular loa represents. Loa are served in the visible world by Haitian Vodou priests and priestesses known as Bokor. It is the responsibility of the Bokor to help facilitate a connection with the loa and guide ceremonies in which Vodouists seek counsel and help.

Vodou Ceremonies: Drums and Music

Drums are used in a variety of cultural festivals, musical genres, and religious practices across Haitian culture. However, drums are used in a distinct manner in Vodou ceremonies to create a distinguishable sound from the drumming heard in many other celebrations in Haiti. In Haitian Vodou ceremonies, the Ti Baka and Gwo Baka are used in the Petwo ensemble in religious celebrations.

The drums resemble congas in appearance, but have a slender, tapered bottom compared to other traditional Haitian instruments. Skins made from lianas or vines form the counterhoops on the drums, and are stretched by rope laced between the counterhoop and wood wedges to create tension.

Drummers that play the instruments during Vodou ceremonies believe that drums add spice to any gathering. The inclusion of drums creates an emotional experience that connects Vodouists to their religion through song and dance. The drums are used to set the mood during any ceremony.

Togolese musicians play the drums

Togolese musicians play the drums for the religious voodoo dance.
Photo: Anton Ivanov

Myths Dispelled

Perhaps the worst myth that hangs over the religion of Haitian Vodou is a connection to the practise of hoodoo. Vodou, as discussed, is a religion with one God and a variety of loas that differ little in terms of their hierarchy and structure to God and the Saints in Catholicism. Vodouists believe in and follow certain rituals, rites of initiation, and other festivals.

Hoodoo is often confused with Vodou, but in reality is a completely different belief system. While Vodou is a religion, hoodoo is more of a folk spirituality that is associated with American cultures. It is generally accepted that hoodoo originated in the Mississippi Delta region of the United States. A large concentration of African slaves lived here throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Hoodoo shares spiritual principles with folk magic from Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and New Orleans, but is not itself a theology.

The practice of hoodoo faces many of the same misunderstandings that Vodou deals with, but the two cannot be lumped into the same category. Vodou possesses a strong theology, while hoodoo is more a spiritual folkway that continuously adopts principles and practices from contact with other cultures, religions, and folk magic beliefs.
Haitian Vodou is worthy of the level of respect and understanding that is given to larger religions around the world. Upon closer examination, it is possible to see that Vodou offers its followers the same theological base of Western religions, but with different practises and beliefs.