Voodoo, as it is colloquially called, originates from African tribal practices that made their way to the New World. Vodou or vodun – its proper title – was created up to 6000 years ago by ancient peoples like the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. Now, it is mainly practiced in Haiti, where slaves brought their faith and refused to let it die. Vodun can also be found in New Orleans (Louisiana voodoo) and in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria (West African vodun). Forms of this religion known as Umbanda, Quimbanda, Macumba, Santeria and Candomble are also practiced in some African and South American cultures.
The nature of vodun lies in the word itself, which refers to spirit energy or the dark and unknown forces that govern both the spiritual and material worlds. Vodun is an ecstatic religion, which means it is based on emotional and psychological experience, rather than a logical set of agreed-upon rules and organizations. Indeed, the voodoo community is almost completely decentralized. With an estimated sixty million people worldwide abiding by some variation of the voodoo faith, it’s not an insignificant religion. However, power is vested in local priests (houngan) and priestesses (mamba) chosen for their special abilities in communicating with dead ancestors and spirits, so there is no governing board that connects all of the practising voodoo communities across the continent.
A theistic religion, voodoo states a belief in a supreme Being who is distant and unknowable. He is served by a large subset of gods called loa, who interact with dead spirits and intercede to help and protect humans on earth.
Vodun ceremonies are a mix of communal celebration, séance, worship, ecstatic trance and church service. They take place in a temple called a hounfour or humfort. The community gathers in a circle around a pole – the poteau-mitan – at the centre of the hounfour, where the loa descend to possess and communicate with humans. The purpose of the gathering is to generate an ecstatic energy that will lead to a trance, which enables the exchange to take place between the earthly and spirit worlds.
The process is led by one or more houngan and mamba. Anyone can be a priest/ess, if they have shown an aptitude for leading a voodoo ceremony and connecting with the loa. Students learning to be vodun leaders are called hounsis.
Drums, chanting, and dancing continue and rise in intensity; when the houngan or mamba falls down, it means that a trance has been generated and the loa is present. The person embodying the spirit is treated with veneration and respect by the rest of the participants. The loa can take questions, help solve people’s problems, or connect them with the spirits of their ancestors.
The loa are much like saints – they’re the spirits of real people who did good deeds during life and are venerated, worshipped and depended upon even once they’ve passed away. In fact, there are quite a number of similarities between the voodoo religion and Catholicism. They both believe in a higher power and the fellowship of saints, they both believe in an afterlife, and they both believe in invisible negative spirits or demons.
One belief unique to vodun is that a person’s body can be revived through magic after they’re dead. The zombie possesses no will of its own and is controlled by others. This idea has captured the public imagination and become a very familiar image in movies and popular culture. In reality, appearances of zombies are more likely live people under the influence of strong drugs administered by a practitioner of black magic. By far the majority of vodun followers practice white magic only and refuse to put curses on other people.
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