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African Beginnings: The History of Modern Voodoo

Coming To America‌. Well Almost

Voodoo In Focus: An interview

April 11, 2010

Vol. 1 Issue 1



Ikon Magazine Volume 1 Issue 1 April 2011 Editor: Amy Keith Artistic Director: Amy Keith Columnist: Amy Keith

This publication is made with the gratitude to Professor Julie Klein ,who celebrates diversity and affords each student the ability to create projects that highlight their interests, creativity and abilities.

Letter from the Editor: Dear Readers, The creation of this magazine has been a labor for sure, but truly a labor of love. The research that was found in persuit of this project was really the deciding factor on how the magazines and the articles within it took shape. That is to say that when I started this project I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like, and read like, but after an extensive research process those ideas gave way to what you see here. I feel like the design of the articles is a natural progression from historical facts to current day visibility of a religion that has not always been laden with research or emperical observation. Through the research process and writing I had to question my own impariality towards a religion that is unfamiliar to me. The ideas surrounding and stereotypes of this perticular religon have been so pervasive that sometimes it can be hard to evaluate material and information through an impartial lens. I have tried to incorporate as many different types of scholarly sources as possible in order to give this magazine a balanced view of Vodun/Voodoo. I encorporated scholarly works that criticized, critqued, analyzed as well as praised Vodun/Voodoo in order to create a balance of ideas within my own studies and intellect so that I may attempt to create a balance in writing that would appear impartial and devoid of my personal opinion. I hope that you enjoy reading this magazine as much as I have enjoyed making it.

Sincerely, Amy Keith



In this Issue


African Beginnings: The History of Modern Voodoo


The African religion of Vodun maybe a widely known and highly conceptualized and stereotyped practice that most people in western societies call Voodoo, but little is known about the history or practice of this traditional religion. Many scholars feel that Vodun may be the world’s oldest indigenous religion, and yes it is still practiced in many forms, in many parts of the globe today. This is a significant accomplishment considering with that most traditionally indigenous, for lack of a more relevant term, religious practices died off during the age of imperialism. Vodun and only a handful of other these types of religions have survived and are still practiced in some form today. With that being said, it must be said that there is very little information about the historical context and practices of Vodun before the time of imperial colonization. Even during the times when there was a wealth of interaction between the colonizing powers of the world, and international traders (primarily in the slave trade), with the indigenous peoples of Africa who practiced this religion, there is only a small amount of information that was gathered. Most of the information that was gathered in a direct way, through dealings with the people who practiced, direct observation of rituals and practices, or through observation of Vodun places of worship and goods, is recorded in personal journals and accounts by travelers, missionaries and traders. This information while providing an important historical resource through collection of empirical data does not necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of the religion. Some criticisms that have arisen from this type of information is that it is often biased by ethnocentric visions of religion and culture. In fact many of the accounts that are written about the interactions of practitioners of Vodun and their western counterparts provide a comparison of how their practices differ from Christianity, or at times an opinion about the validity of the religion. It is also true that many of these accounts attempt to assert an opinion about the people as being of substandard intelligence and culture based on what they felt were primitive beliefs, only proving that the lens through which they were written was smudged by AngloChristian ideals of superiority in religion and intellect. The question then becomes: is there any accurate information to be had about the historical practice and development of Vodun? The answer to this question is “Yes.� There has been in the last century a push to understand this religion that has held tight to its belief system and practices for so many years. Many people have become interested in African Vodun as a result of the realization that it is being practiced in some form in Central and Northern America. This has led anthropologists, and ethnographers to attempt to retrace the roots of this religion back to its homeland in West Africa. The practice of Vodun can be equated to the traditional religions of the Native Peoples from many lands before the time of colonization, the crusades and large attempts by the Abrahamic religions at missionary work. These events dramatically shaped the religions of the worlds as they are held today, but Vodun in its most traditional format has been kept alive in many of the countries in West Africa where it was originally formed and practiced. As well as being found in these countries, Vodun is on of the only traditional indigenous religions that has spread throughout the world and has survived the drastic attempts of missionary work to dissolve the religion into memory of a former time. This was not seen with the traditional religions that were practiced by the Native Peoples of north and south America. The spread of Vodun throughout the globe can be rationalized by many as having done so through the transport of slaves through the slave trade. This can also explain why other traditional religions have not been able to be transplanted from their native lands to other societies in the world. 7

The majority of what is gleaned about the practice of Vodun in its native lands is from anthropological studies. This type of study is a modern day glance backwards through the study of recovered artifacts such as pottery, unearthed shrines, and excavation of religious sites and homes of practitioners of Vodun. Through this type of research a timeline as well as a picture of religious practices emerge, at least in its physical form. As they traced the archeological relics back through time a picture of Vodun emerged as being a traditional religion that was and still is practiced in much of west Africa. Countries where Vodun has had and still has a notable presence include Benin, Cote d’Iviore, Guinne, Ghanna and Nigeria. It is thought, through findings of symbols and pottery that Vodun in its earliest form was a religion that encompassed the worship of many dieties. Each diety had its own special power, or trade. This is similar to what was seen with the Egyptian and Greek gods, who had the god of the sun, god of war, goddess of love and so on. It is also believed that the gods which were worshiped by one tribe or family of people were not necessarily worshiped by other tribes and families. However, careful interpretation of types of pottery and symbols found in archeological digs shows the Vodun was a religion that allowed for flexibility in incorporating new dieties into reverance. This is to say that according to Neil L Norman in his article entitled, “Powerful Pots, Humbling Holes, and Regional Ritual Processes: Towards and Archeology of Huedan Vodun, ca 1650- 1727” that when peoples from one tribe interacted with another through trade or migration and they found a diety that held a power that they liked or was thought to be very generous or kind they would encorporate that diety into the fold of the ones they already worshiped. This according to the same article was not a replacement for any of the dieties that they already held to power, but was rather an inclusion of a new one in addition to the others. The findings that led them to this hypothosis were in the clay pots that were used in ceremonies as well as placed on alters. Each diety and offering had its specific type of pot, including shape, size and markings. When these pots were unearthed they found in some areas the same pot size, shape and markings as were common in other, distant places. Furthermore, it was found that the pots for some dieties in a specific area predated those of other pots for the same area, proving that these were used to worship dieties that were newly encorporated. With regards to the clay pots and other ceremonial offering pieces it was found through research and interviews that it was women who were postmenopausal that were responsible for the crafting of all pots and ceremonial offering plates. The reason given for these specific people’s roles in crafting these objects was due to the fact that the objects themselves were believed to hold very powerful majic. This majic could include things that may be harmful to fertility or unborn children. The actual ritualistic practices of the religion can only be gleaned from what people are willing to say about them. This is due to the fact that outsiders are not and have not been privy to observation of these practices. That is to say, they have neither been invited in to witness, nor welcomed when permission was requested. In modern times this may be a result of the negative stereotypes that are associated with these types of religions. Pschological studies have found that when a group is asked to participate in a study of behaviors or practices associated with their socioeconomic or ethnic group that if they feel the study will verify or validate negative stereotypes that are already present, they are slow to participate and interact with researchers. For this information it is necessary to rely on first hand accounts of those


who have witnessed or participated in ceremonies. As stated earlier in this article this data can hardly be empirical because the nature of many of these accounts of historic practices are qaulified against the religious and ethnic practices of those individuals providing the acounts. For modern practices however, this becomes more straightforward accounts of Vodun rituals and beliefs. For instance, Henry Lewis Gates Jr. did a documentary for PBS in which he traveled to Ouidah, Benin, the current hub of Vodun activity and also the home of the world’s larges Vodun market place. While in Benin he spoke with a practicioner of Vodun who was willing to speak to him about many of the objects found in the market place, and also with a guide who was willing to speak to him about some artifacts and sites that are still standing from Vodun’s historic past. What We Do Know About the Practice of Vodun: Vodun is an animistic religion, which means that it is a belief system in which one of the major principles is the fact that the spirit can separate from the body. Animisim also includes the belief that concious life, as we understand it to be in human biengs, can be attributed to nature and inanimate objects, or phenomenon (Merriam –Webster). This idea that the spirit is separate from the physical body and can be associated and attached to other beings and objects is expressed in Vodun with the idea of possesion. In Vodun practice there is much language given to, and expression of the spirit of a diety possesing the body of an individual, or bieng housed in a sacred vesel for a period of time, as well as possesing objects of nature. This belief can also be witnessed in direct discourse with practicioners of Vodun with regards to their beleifs of what brings rain, sun, storms, and good harvets and many other phenomenons of nature. It can also be witnessed through the ritual possession of beings by the spirit of a diety. This manifests itself in what appears to be a trance like state where the individual is not conciously aware of their actions or their words. In Vodun there is no religious doctrine or dogma. Beleifs and practices are all individualized based on the diety and beliefs of the person or tribe. Many of the beleifs, practices and understanding of the religion is passed down from generation to generation. This means family dieties usually remain the same, unless there is an encorporation of a spirit by a member of the family. This is not to say however, that there is no fudemental belief system in place for Vodun, it is just less rigid than what has been produced through Abrahamic Religions system of codification. In Vodun there is a heirarchy involved in the classification of spirits. There is one spirit who is seen as imnipotent, and reigning over all other spirits. Many practicioners call him Damballah and he is seen as a male spirit. The other spirits that are below him are all classified into two catagories, either good (kind) spirits, or bad (evil) spirits. Damballah, however can neither be classified as good or evil because of his supreme nature. The way that the dieties are venerated is through the creation of altars. These altars can be either public, like when used for ceremonies and gatherings, or private, kept in one’s home as a shrine to their spirits. The altars would be decorated with the symbol of the diety which is being worshiped. Most altars would include Damballah in addition to the lesser spirits that are being venerated. The altar would be used as the place and vessel of worsip. They are the place where sacred objects of each spirit are placed, ritual offerings are made as well as the place where prayers would be made. Each spirit has special things that are associated with them, according to what powers they posses, that would dictate the objects that are placed on the alter, the 9

colors that are used in the creation of the altars as well as the offerings that would be given to them. For instance one known diety whose name is Papa Legba would most likely have his altar decorated in red and black, and offerings of candy, cidars would be made to him. Also, as far as sacrafices that would be made to him roosters are amongst his most sacred of animals. Each diety is also given a day in which they are revered, so Pap Legba’s offerings and sacrifices as well as any ceremony would be held on Mondays. One important thing to understand about Vodun beleifs is the belief in the eternal nature of the spirit. In Vodun, one who is dead only dies in body while the spirit has been freed to travel and inhabit another object or being. This creates a great reverance for ancestors in their religion. It becomes necessary to honor them and remember them because their spirit may still be around to accept the offerings. When it comes to ritual practices, amonst the types that would be proformed for all dietites sacrifices, offerings, dances, songs pyarers, celebration and feasts would be amongst those included. How these offerings would be made are through the use of the earthen ware pots and plates addressed earlier in this piece. As for the way in which sacrifices, dances, songs and prayers would be conducted, this is one of the areas that have a shroud of secrecy around them. The information for what happens, what is said, what it looks and sounds like is not available to those who are outside the religion. While there are Vodun practices and rituals being practiced openly in places like Benin, the information about the meaning of these rituals is not readily shared with outsiders. The pots hold a mixture of ingreidiens. Each mixture is inteded to bring forth different aspects of the power of the diety for which the pots have been created. These pots as already discussed are said to harness some of the power of the diety. In fact pots and pouches as well as various other containers are said to harness the power of spirits in such a way that they can be utilized not only in official ceremonies and rituals, but also in a way that can be used to benefit the holder of such an object. For instance when Henry Lewis Gates Jr. visited Oiudoh during the taping of his documentary a woman took him through the market place for Vodun goods and explained to him some of the various items that were found there. She noted the use of various types of skulls and detailed how they may be used. As well, she picked up a small clay vessel that was shaped like a person and had a whole where the ear would be, and a small rope hanging down with a wooden stick the size of a toothpick on the end. She stated that if a person wanted to keep their friend or their enemy from talking about something that they would just tell the statue in its ear and close it with the wooden stick. She stated that the person would never be able to speak of that subject again. This is an example of a nonritualistic activity that can be preformed with Vodun. In conjunction with these pots, statues are also made to venerate the diety and these statues can be inside of a person’s home, on their property or can even be present in a public domain. Often times members of the same tribe would venerate the same spirits and this would allow for the creation of monuments in their honor. Often times in the base of these statues one may find skulls, powders, pots and other objects often used in Vodun rituals. There are a lot of negative stereotypes that suround Vodun, even it its native lands of west Africa. The way in which these negative stereotypes manifested is unclear at this time. It could be due to the some of the materials that they use in their worship such as skulls, but this would 10

not be enough evidence to create an entire stereotype when so many of the other things used have no reseblance to them. One working theory is that the initial encounters with people from the west and those practicioners of Vodun was through the slave trade, and since this was an abhorant practice the necessity of the people was to call on evil spirits used to wage wars. This theory however is not meted out with the facts, because initial personal accounts that were recorded amongst westerners with those they were trading with for goods, and those that they were actively engaged in the slave trade practices with are not initial angry encounters. In fact many of the accounts while detail the primitive nature of the religion and what they deemed to be the practices did not encorporate an air of negativity beyond that. So, that begs the question: Why then there would be this negativity surrounding a religious practice? This question is doubly quizical when you realize that studies of this religion initiate centuries after westerners first encounter with it, and only after the abolishment of slavery. This indicates then that there is a racial aspect to the rhetoric surrounding Vodun. This is a very plausible theory, when one takes into consideration the ways in which some religions are spoken about over others. For instance there is wealth of knowledge and research done on Egyptian gods, Greek gods, and Roman gods. Each of these three multi diety based religions held the notion of good and evil spirits and all were founded in the ability to use their dieties to good and evil ends. There is not however, the negative stereotype associated with those religions. With that being said, the negative framework for the way in which Vodun has been studied, or at times not even been aknowledged, has been set, and has flavored the ways in which research is done, and information has been interpreted. That fact is now something that researchers are having to take a step back from in order to ascertain the truth, but when the wheels have been set in motion it takes a mighty force to stop them.

The three images above are traditional pottery (left), vessel (center) and statue (right) used in the practice of Vodun in West Africa and particularly Benin. These images were obtained thanks to This is a website dedicated to explaining traditional African art and music.



The Caribbean has a rich Vodun past and present. The transfer of the religion from the mainland of West Africa to the set of tiny islands was in no doubt through what is known as the Middle Passage via the slave trade. The fact that slaves were brought from many different villages and many different ports meant that each were bringing with them their own language, their own dieties and their own systems of rituals ( Dubois 94). Initially when slaves were brought from Africa they could not always communicate with one another because of the diverse nature of their languages and customs. This however, allowed their languages to evolve into what Dubios calls “creoles” which is a hybridization of languages. When these creoles became sufficient enough in development the slaves began to build a new network of community and communal systems that resembled practices from their native tribes. This of course included the sharing of religios information and practices. It is known that Vodun is a religion that allows for the consumption of new dieties into the fold of those already being worshiped by an individual. This sharing and blending of religious practices helped in the slaves endeavors to create a community and “carve out spaces for worship” (Dubois 94). This creation of a hybridization of religious practices adapted from many tribes is a common theme in Vodun. It has been discussed in previous articles that anthorpological research has concluded that there is proof through pots that were used for worship that dieties were often encorporated over time from a different village of that dieties powers were desired by an individual or a tribe (Powerful Pot and Humbling Holes). The fact that Vodun is a religion that is flexible enough to allow for encorporation of new dieties as well as adaptation of practices would also facilitate in the slaves struggle to keep their religious practices and beleifs from their captors. This desire, and in fact need, to keep their religion hidden shaped Vodun into what it looks like today. In fact, the ability of the practicioners of Vodun to adapt their practices allowed for syncretism to evolve the religion in a way that to their Anglo-Christian captors it appeared they were in fact practicing Christianity. Dubois argues that this ability to hide and practice in secret allowed for slaves to gather as a nation and rise up for their freedom. He claims that the ceremony that precipitated a revolution in Haiti to win its independence on the premis of freeing the slaves was called for by “ougans” or priests and created the religious structure that was present then and is still present today (Dubois 94). Dubois echos throughout his piece the ideology that was also found in the study of African Vodun that there is little documentation, or interest in study of the religion itself at periods of history where it was present as well as transforming. This he claims, as do many others, is a manifestation of the desire of the practicioners to hide their practice to escape persecution, as well as Anglo-Christian views of the religion as being nothing more than a cult with primitive superstitions thereby it would be devoid of validity negating the need to understand it. This ideology permeated all litarary and scholarly works on the subject until the early twentieth century. While much work has been done to try and eradicate this type of thinking and replace it with more balanced and empirical research, it is hard to change a way of thinking that has been so pervasive for such a long time. As well as creating a mindset it allowed for evidence of a religion and a culture to slip away, so that it becomes harder to retrace their historical footprints. While there may be no clear understanding of how Vodun transformed into what it is today in the Caribbean, it is clear to see that a transformation did take place somewhere between the shores of the historical West African Vodun and todays highly syncretic Caribbean Vodun. The transformation that is visible is primarily with regards to the adaptation of Roman Catholic13

iconic imagery, symbolism and personification of saints with Vodun dieties. This syncretism, as discussed before, manifested out of a need and a desire by the slaves to keep their religion secret. This type of adaptation would not be something that would be adverse to the ideals of Vodun which has through its historical past been open to not only encorporation of dieties, but also the symbols, beadwork, and pots and rituals of those dieties. So it is not a stretch for practicioners of Vodun to be able to encorporate the Anglo-Christian God as well as the rituals and iconogrophy associated with their religion. According to Gregory Peduto in his article, “The Mystery of Voodoo,” the desire of the slave owners to force Vodun from their captives by forcing them into the Catholic church as well as through forced baptisms is actually what allowed the religion of Vodun to prosper and grow in the Caribbean. He argues that it is through learning about the symbolism and saints of the Catholic church, it allowed the slaves to devise ways in which to mask their practices and symbols with ones that fit the flavor and look of those of Vodun. For instance he states: “Christian saints began to represent the pantheon of loas ( Vodun dieties)” (Peduto 46). Some of the pairings that he mentioned are “St. Patrick with the serpent god Damballah,” “St. Peter the gatekeeper became Legba the gaurdian of the spirit world” and “Erzuli Freda, the goddess of love, coopted the Virgin Mary” (46). In addition to the coopting of saints, many other instances of borrowing happened from the Roman Catholic religion. For instance the Roman Catholic cross was coopted for the symbol of the crossroads between the spiritaul world and the human world. It is necessary in Vodun tradition to stand at the crossroads at the beginning of any ceremony where one is wishing to conjure up the gods so they (the gods) can cross over. This was achieved through syncretism by drawing the Roman Catholic cross on the floor, or in the air as a way to disguise the symbol for Legba. This symbol when witnessed by an outsider would look like nothing more than a cross and would not alert them to the presence of Vodun practices. One similarity that already existed worked in the favor of Vodun’s syncrtism. This similarity was with the role of the preist within the confines of the Catholic religion and the preist (shaman/ hougan) in the Vodun religion. According to Roman Catholic beliefs the preist was to act as a intermediary between God and his followers (Peduta 46). This was also the role of the hougan in the Vodun religion. It was the hougan who at the opening of ceremonies would stand at the crossroads and act as an intermediary by calling forth Legba and the other spirits. This similarity allowed the hougans to maintain their leadership role in the community. In much of Caribbean Vodun art from past and present the syncrtism is highly visible, and to an outsider may in fact appear to be art of the Roman Catholic persuasion. It would not be uncommon to see paintings that featured Roman Catholic saints, the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, the cross as well as many other iconic imagery. In fact through researching the Hatian Vodun it is common to see altars that resemble those of the church, with candles, crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary set before plates of offerings and sacrafices. Some examples of these altars can be seen on the next page. It is interesting to note while looking at these altars how they may appear to be related to the Christian religion, and without an understanding of the syncretic practices of Caribbean Vodun, or careful scrutinization their true purpose may not be recongnized. This duplistic identity is a derivative of the years of persecution of practicioners of this religon have gone through and are still continuing to go through today. 14

This altar is attributed to a Hatian School. Note the use of the cross in the lower portion of the alter, as well as pictures on the left and the right of Saint Peter, St. Patric and the Virgin Marry. Also note the coffin in the left hand corner with the imagery of a skull and cross-bones. This is a great example of the syncrtism that has occurred. Take note of the earthen-ware pots on the lower portion of the altar as well. This is the remnance of the traditional African Vodun Practices. These pots would contain treated herbs, as well as various powders. This most likely is an altar to the diety known as Erzuli. Note the prominent picture of the Virgin Mary as the central focal point of the altar. All around the alter on the ground as well as on top are offerings of Erzuli’s favorite things such as flowers, honey and sweets. This altar also has a number of pots that are present that would contain magic mixtures and potions that would be said to harness the loving powers of Erzuli. Notice the pot on the top left hand side of the altar has a cross afixed to the top of it.

The altar to the left came from the website for the “Gade Nou Leve Society” website. They describe this altar as being set full of offerings for Erzuli. Notice the use of pink and gold which are said to be Erzuli’s favorite colors. It is hard to make out, but taped to the back wall is a picture of the Vigin Mary, as well as a cross in the top left hand corner of the picture. This is a testimony to the influence of syncretism in the practice of Vodun.


Coming to America… (continued) While there is a large amount of syncritism that has taken place over the years with Caribbean Vodun, it does not mean that the religion itself has not stayed true to its African roots. The dieties that are being worshiped still carry the same names, symbols and powers as did their African counterparts. There are stories that have been handed down about the slaves coming across the Middle Passage conjuring up spirits such as Legba, and Damballah in order to bring about a storm or a calamity. This is testimony to the continuation of the religion, and not merely a return to the religion as some have argued. Aside from the dieties that are worshiped, there are also a great number of ritualistic practices and traditional beliefs that still hold true today. For instance, the necessity of the use of clay pots to carry treated herbs and medicines as well as to hold offerings still exists in Caribbean Vodun. In fact, the manufacturing of these pots still lay primarily in the hands of postmenopausal women. Some other occasions where Vodun has stayed true to its initial system of beleifs and worship is with the ritual ceremonies that are practiced. It is said that in most Vodun rituals today they are still using the beating of a traditional African style drum, traditional African style Vodun dancing in order to “draw the gods from the etheral world to the natural one” (Peduta 46). Another ritual that has remained is the belief of the spirit as being separate from the physical body which allows for possesion of a body, object, natural or supernatural phenomenon by a spirit. This includes the belief that spirits of past ancestors live on in other forms, and can be taken up by a person during a ritual ceremony. Another belief that is derived directly from a historical contect is the strong reverance for ancestors. This reverance for the ancestors is the reason, argues Peduta, that hougans conjure up the gods. It is a way for them to celebrate an provide protection to the spirits of their ancestors (46). He argues that this celebration and strong reverance for ancestors is what gave rise to the myth of “Cult of the Dead” as Vodun practicioners have been called (46). While there is many occasion to witness the differences between African Vodun and Caribbean Vodun, it is clear to see that both are derived from the same system of beleifs and practices. While the changes cannot be disputed, so neither can their causes. It was through attempted force and coersion that Anglo-Christian captors were atempting to strip African slaves of their heritage, culture and system of beleifs. In order to thwart this attempt the slaves used the tools and religion as it was presented to them as a way to encompass Roman Catholic imagery, practices and personalities into the practice of Vodun. This allowed for syncretism to occur in such a way as to shield the true identity and beleifs from those who were wishing to persecute those who were practicing Vodun. It was through the same lens that created the necessity for syncretism that Vodun was scrutinized and portrayed in a way that has forced much of its practices underground to this day.




Vodun arived in the United States for the first time with the transport of slaves into New Orleans. This transfer of slaves and the religion did not take place with slaves being transported directly from the African mainland to the United States, but rather occurred with the abolishment of slavery in the Caribbean islands (namely Haiti) and thus the transfering of those slaves to the mainland. This meant that the practice of Vodun had already undergone the process of syncretism into its more Roman Catholic appearance. The religion was capable to flourish in the city of New Orleans for two very important reasons. The first reason is that slaves in this city enjoyed a certain amount of freedom to express their culture and also to move about the city, especially on Sundays when they were allowed to gather in a place set aside just for them, Congo Square. It is a well known historical fact that slaves were allowed to freely gather, mingle and partake in rituals on Sundays in this designated area. Evidence suggests that events that took place there included lively drumming, dancing and singing. These types of behaviors and practices are in conjunction with the ritualistic worship of Vodun. The true nature of practices and history of Vodun as it entered into New Orleans is uncertain at best. When doing research for this article a recurring theme surfaced with regards to the clandestine nature of practices, as well as lack of interest in scholarly studies of what seemed to be a primitave, superstitious cult. There is however, a lot of reasearch and acceptance of certain aspects of the religion with the development of time and emergence of important historical figures (Fandrich 1-2). While the traditional belief system and practices that were transplanted from the Caribbean remained the same , Vodun emerged in New Orleans with a new identity. This newly emerging identity was not simply with a name change from Vodun to Voodoo, but also the religion took on an identity and a place in society that would not have been possible in any place but there. The acceptance of a diversity of peoples, cultures and behaviors allowed for places such as Congo Square to become a symbol of the tolerance that was common place in New Orleans in the early days. It is through this tolerance the Voodoo emerged as an practiced that was not only accepted as having a place in the city, but would also become yet another color in the emerging cultural make-up of the city. It is important in order to understand the changes that Vodun underwent, to understand the city that facilitated those changes. When Luisianna became part of the United States it should have been obvious that New Orleans would make its mark on America the way no other city could. At the time of the Luisianna Purchase the languages most often spoke there were French and Spanish, however the language of the US was English. This difference in language did not hinder growth of New Orleans, in fact the people there would react in a way that would soon become a New Orleans tradition, they kept their language and developed a new hybrid version of all the langauges. In addition to the diversity in languages New Orleans is known for a diversity in people, cuisine and architecture, but how does this all relate to the acceptance and transformaiton of Voodoo into what it is now? New Orleans had the larges amount of free Blacks in than any other city in the United States, and it is a known fact that the city was a place where free-Blacks could enjoy many of the same privelages of their white counter parts. This fact coupled with the unique physical landscape of New Orleans as being both a port city, and also a basin at the end of the Mississippi River


created and environment where people of many cultures lived, worked, interacted together in very tight quarters. These cramped living conditions afforded people the opportunity to witness and take part in cultural and religios practices that otherwise would be foreign to them. This began to manifest itself very early on into an understanding and acceptance of behaviors. It is a theory of many who have studied human psychological processes that it is being seperated from and a lack of understanding of people, situations, cultures and behaviors that creates fear of those things. The fact that there was exposure to a wealth of many different peoples, cultures, situations in behaviors and situations in the crampt confines of the city very well may have been the factor that shaped the city into a place known for its reverance for diversity, openness and acceptance. Another important factor that one must take into consideration when talking about the city of New Orleans and how the city has shaped Voodoo, is the way that industry is thought of there. Stanonis makes the argument in his book, “Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism 1918-1945� that when New Orleans was going through rough times leading up to and during the Great Depression city leaders and elite were looking for a way to bring revenue to the city. At this time in other big cities the way to expand revenue was through the development of big industries such as automotive and textile manufacturing. This idea did not sit well with many people of New Orleans who were afraid that their city scape would be taken over by large, dirty overbearing industrial buildings the way it had in many other cities. Stanonis argues that those people who were in opposition to manufacturing developed, in true New Orleanian style, their own definition of industry, which others called tourism. The idea became then to tax activities that would be enjoyed by people who had money to indulge in social activities such as the theatre, as welll as those activities that would normally be enjoyed by tourists. When this idea of tourism emerged as a new type of industry it began to blossom into the idea that anything, culture, religion, music, architecture, even death could become a tourist attraction. The ability to make money off of the unique nature of New Orleans diverse cultural make-up allowed for the emergence of attractions, night life activities, and behaviors that would have otherwise been forced underground as mainstream acceptable activities. This is what allowed Voodoo to surface and be practiced openly, well sort of. It is true that there was still a lot of mystery surrounding the practice of Voodoo however, there were many figures, some who would enjoy a mainstream following, that openly practiced Voodoo. One such figure was Marie Laveaux, who by many accounts was sought out by prominent business people in the community, as well as politicians and everyday men and women for consultations about many aspects of their personal and professional lives. Janet Allured states in her journal article titled, They Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans, that Marie Laveaux became famous for her potions that could heal the sick from many diseases such as malaria, and yellow fever, but was well known also for being able to give potions that would solve matters of the heart ( Allured 1). She claims as well that it was her ability to solve matters of the heart through Voodoo practices that gained her fame and power and caused her to be sought out by men and women of all colors, religions, races and socioeconomic classes.


This also led to her being sought out for other purposes such as to help with political races, success in business as well as other more sordid desires. Allured aknowledges the great amount of myth and hype that surrounds such a person as Marie Laveaux stating that wild stories of her powers and Voodoo machinations permiated the city streets before her death, but these stories did not make her appear dangerous or as a threat in any manner because as she claims the police never took much interest in stopping her activities, aprehending her and there were no community outcries for her arrest. Her ability to practice openly allowed her legend to continue to grow and take on a life of her own. It is through one quick search of her name on any major search engine that one can find websites dedicated to her, books written about her, she is the subject of many scholarly journal articles written both about Voodoo history as well as the history of New Orleans. This is an indication that her presence as a Voodoo preistess whether a great poriton is myth is an important part of the rich cultural history of the city. While much of what is known about Marie Laveaux is tempered with an amount of myth, and romanticism, her role as a Voodoo priestess gives evidence that Voodoo was being practiced openly in New Orleans. Other evidence of this fact exists as well. For instance in an article entitled Voodoo in New Orleans by Blake Touchstone accounts people gaterhing in the thousands to witness ceremonial Voodoo ritiuals each year. The ceremony that Touchstone is talking about took place annually on St. John’s eve at Lake Pontchartrain. The discription of the events as they took place include undulating dances, naked orgies, frenetic and ecstatic excitement and eventually a dip into the lake itself (375-76). He concludes that people would turn out en-mass to witness these events as a way to find “unusual excitement” (377). This attempt to find unusual excitement as Touchstone calls it would become a signiture trademark idea for the tourist industry in New Olreans, and is exactly the social atmosphere that was necessary to allow Voodoo to be practiced openly without persecution of its practicioners. That is not to say that every aspect of Voodoo was seen and witnessed by the public, it is also not true that there was no attempt to marginalize this religion. Those attempts to push Voodoo underground again were done so with racial and ethnocentric overtones. Touchstone argues in his article that these practices were seen by some white elites as validating the stereotype of the black male as primative and inferior (377-78). As is seen today, and aquiesced by Touchstone, the practice of Voodoo is still present in New Orleans today. In true New Orleanian tradition the quest for the unusual mixed with the necessity to create layers of tourism and created a brand or tourism called Voodoo Tourism. This type of tourism is a hybrid of realizing and appreciating the historical past that Voodoo has in New Orleans with reverance, veneration and romanticism for an exaggerated form of its myth, legend and stereotypes. This love of a grossly exaggerated form of Voodoo is present all throughout New Orleans today. When walking down a main strip in a tourist area it is not uncommon to see shops selling Voodoo wares. Some of the shops claim to sell authentic merchandise, while others openly admit to the selling of Voodoo suivenirs. It is also not uncommon to see street vendors performing Voodoo magic, reading palms or tarot cards or providing any number of services to tourists in the name of Voodoo. These same streets house Voodoo shops where inside one can aquire a love potion, an amulet of protection, a gris-gris bag, a Voodoo idol or have a session with a Voodoo priest or preistess. 21

Another form of tourism is that is prevalent in New Orleans is through tours of the city. In these tours, Stanonis claims, people hear about the official history of the city, one that was stamped with the seal of approval by the offical tourism department. People wishing to take a Voodoo tour in New Orleans will have many options. A quick check of the internet, the official tourism website for New Orleans, or a call to its chamber of commerce will provide in detail the many options for tours that are available. Tourists are encouraged to pick their poison, so to speak, based on their desire for credibility, historical information, or level of sensationalism involved in the tour. Tourists will see many sights on their tour such as the home of Marie Laveaux, cemeteries, Lake Pontchartrain and Congo Square. These tours would not have been possible without the creative mix of diversity, acceptance and inginuity in capatilism that is found only in New Orleans. With regards to Marie Laveaux the famous, or infamous, Voodoo priestess mentioned earlier in this article, she has her own niché in tourism. It has become a ritual for many visitors to New Orleans to visit her home as well as her grave. This is a practice for those who are followers of Voodoo and those who have little to no knowledge or belief in Voodoo. Her tomb is located in St. Louis Cemetary number 1 and is the site of not only tourism but ritual offerings. Even non practicioners of Voodoo have taken to the habit of marking her tomb with three x’s which is derived from traditional ritualistic Voodoo practices. This is another proof that New Orleans has put its own flavor on Voodoo. Through people’s ability to witness Voodoo ritual in New Orleans as well as the fascination for “unusual entertainment” as Touchstone so poingently noted Voodoo has found a place in pop culture. This fascination has manifested itself through sensationalism of Voodoo practices and stereotypes. Some aspects of Voodoo that has emerged in pop culture as a cult phenomenon is through a fascination with the idea of zombies and black magic. These concepts have permiated mainstream film, music, and marketing. In fact one of the biggest members of the film industry Disney Films has recenlty released a movie that is set in New Orleans and is premised off of the ideas of Mardis Gras and Voodoo. The movie titled “Disney’s the Princess and the Frog,” exaggerates and romanticizes the stereotypes of Voodoo. The movie encompasses characters that personify the idea of the Voodoo trickster, the Zombie, the animistic view that a soul can be transferred from one object to another with a jazz playing aligator, as well as the old legendary Voodoo preistess with the power to set things back to normal. This type of fascination of Voodoo through pop culture was only made possible through the unique characteristics of New Orlean’s ability to accept and harness the power of the unusual. This uniquely New Orleanian characteristic was further enhanced by their ability to create an industry called tourism that would allow people to be envoloped in a place of unusual entertainment and enjoy aninimity while partaking in behaviors and indulging in a belief system that has been pushed underground and marginalized all over the world, all in the name of profit.


Three Examples of Mainstream Voodoo Recognition

This is an illustrationof Marie Laveaux the Voodoo Priestess who rose to fame among people of all ethnicities, colors and socieoeconimic classes.

To the right is the picture of the cover of a book that is readily available for purchase through various websites.

To the left is a sign that is located out front of a Voodoo shop on a main strip in New Orleans



During the course of my research I had the good fortune to be able to meet someone who was actively engaged in the Voodoo religion. Due to the stereotypes and attitudes towards religions outside of the three Abrahamic traditions the woman that I interviewed did not wish to give personal identifying information. I do however feel it is necessary to give some general information about her that will help to dispel any myths or misconceptions about those individuals who are part of this religion. The woman who we shall call “S” is approximately middle aged, well educated and is in fact seeking a post graduate degree. Her family is originally from one of the Caribbean Islands, but she was born in the United States. We conducted the interview through email correspondence and what follows is a transcript of that correspondence. Question: How did you first come to learn about Voodoo? From whom did you learn about the religion and its practices? S: Everything was passed on through my maternal relatives. Q: There are several different words for the religion itself. Some people say Voodoo, some say Vodun, or Vodoun. Which do you use and why? What groups use each of these terms and why? S: Indeed different people say different things, however, I say Vodun because Voodoo, or any spelling near it, is what the initial Europeans called it. Q: What are some important aspects of the religion that may get misunderstood by many people? S: There are many; I think I have already addressed them in some of your other questions though. Q: Can you tell us about the different spirits and how they are worshiped? Can you explain the term Loa for us? A: There are hundreds of Lwa’s. All are worshipped in different ways, however, most are honored (preferred term over worshipped) through offerings to altars built in their honor and celebrations held on their favorite days of the week. Additionally, all Lwa’s have their own Veve (symbol), as well as their favorite colors and favorite gifts they like to receive. Q: Which particular spirit do you worship, and how did this come to be your spirit guide? A: Worship would not be the correct word here. Yes, the Lwa whom I follow and service is Erzulie. She is the most popular and most beloved of all the nearly hundreds of Lwa’s. She is the Spirit of love, passion, sensuality, nurturing and motherhood. I am including her Veve (symbol) below. Her favorite color is pink. Her favorite altar items (gifts) are perfumes, flowers, mirrors, honey, jewelry and sweets. All the other Lwa’s have a Veve, favorite color and favorite altar items, as well . We come to follow and honor our spirit guides in different ways, but they are all intimate and 25 privately kept; sorry

Q: Are there a places or forums in Michigan for those with the same faith to come together, hold meetings, or have ceremonies? A: Sorry, I would rather not answer this question. Q: There are a lot of stereotypes about Voodoo being a dark or evil magical religion. What would be your response to those who believe that way? A: I don’t usually respond to such claims. People are entitled to their beliefs, as I am entitled to mine. Q: What do you feel is the most overlooked aspect of Voodoo and why? A: There are many. One of the most important would be the fact that “Voodoo Dolls” are not a part of the religious practices. Another would be the fact that it is not just a religion, but more of a way of life. Lastly, there is the fact that there is a belief in God (Damballah). Q: Why do you feel like pop culture has a new fascination with zombies, which are a stereotyped version of voodoo beliefs? A: The “fascination” with “zombies” is not new to “pop culture”. It began years ago when missionaries and colonizers arrived to Africa and witnessed people in possession. Since they did not understand what was going on, it was sensationalized and it is still sensationalized. Q: Do you think that the stereotypes about Voodoo have affected the way you practice, the way you talk about your religion, or how open you are with other people about your religious practices? A: The stereotypes have not at all affected the way I *practice*, per say. Instead, what it has done has encouraged me to “come out” and educate folks about my beliefs and practices whenever I can. However, there are some questions I won’t answer for safety reasons since unfortunately, we live in a society/culture which is not accepting of non-Christian based religions. Q: What is one last thought about Voodoo that you would like to leave the readers with today? A: Can’t think of anything else. Q: Is there anything that I have not asked that you would like to add? A: No; good questions!

Erzulie’s Veve



African Vodun Dancer "channeling" ancestral spirits spins in a trance at an Egungun festival. In Ouidah, Benin

Statue of voodoo god in the fetish market in Lome, Togo

Monkey skulls are just a few of the animal parts for sale at the fetish market in Lome, Togo

Two voodoo followers in trance and possession prepare to cut themselves with knives during a ceremony in Benin, West Africa. The act reveals the deity has possessed their body. 28

Caribbean Vodun Vodun pots used to hold treated herbs and potions, that show the syncretism between Vodun and Catholicism, found in Haiti.

Voodoo Ceremony in Haiti with dancing intended to channel spirits.

Hatian Voodoo flag depicting the Virgin Mary as Erzuli the Vodun goddess of love. This is yet another testimony to the syncretismm found in Caribbean Vodun.


American Voodoo Images of “Voodoo Dolls” for sale on the internet from a New Orleans Luisianna based company.

This image was taken from a website claiming to give tours of authentic New Orleans Voodoo sites as well as educate people about the true history of Voodo. A link on the website claims also, to teach people how to make “real New Orlean’s Voodoo dolls” which there is no basis in the religion for those types of fetishes.

Image of the stereotyped Voodoo trickster who doles out evil magic for his own gains, from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”




Just the very name Voodoo or Vodun conjures up in most people many images, most of which probably do not represent the true religion, or its people. There are many theories of how these negative images and stereotypes emerged from the practice. One theory is that the negative experiences that arose from the slave trade and slave revolts in the Caribbean. This theory claims that when the Eurpeans encountered Africans who were angry and trying to rise up against the trading of their peoples as a commodity they conjured what would be considered dark spirits, the ones who would normally be used in times of war. The scholars who are engaged in this theory argue it was the war-like angry usage of spirits that gave Europeans an image of Vodun as being inherantly evil. Another theory is that Europeans who viewed Vodun practices did so through an Eurocentric vantage point. This ethnocentricity caused the Europeans hold Vodun up against AngloChristian beleifs as though their beleifs were the standardative norm by which everything else could and should be judged. By holding their values as the norm they created and actively persued to spread the image of Vodun as a primative, superstitous cult. This image, some argue, would be used in the Caribbean as an attempt to validate a racial stereotype of African men as savage, primative and inferior to white men in an attempt to explain and excuse their persecution and oppression of them. No matter what theory of how misconceptions and stereotypes got formed there is clear evidence that these stereotypes have been pervasive enough to shape a mindset about an entire religion and create a cultural and ethnic bias against those who are practicioners. This persecution of pracicioners of Vodun have caused the religion to go underground in most places which only perpetuates the cloud of mystery that already surrounds it, and therfore reenforcing old stereotypes and creating new ones. One of the most popular misconceptions is that of the Voodoo zombi. The belief in the walking undead and the transfering of spirits has somehow transformed into the minds of western society as a walking, brainless, flesh eating beast that should be feared, but the image of the zombi and what it is and can do is very different in Vodun beleifs. The belief in transferring of spirits is what has caused many negative stereotypes of Vodun and caused it to be marginalized as an evil, archaic, superstitious cult. This is due however, to a misunderstanding of what happens in the translike state of possession, as well as what the true Vodun understanding of Zombi is. For explanation of the translike state of possession, one needs to understand that a person who is possessed by a spirit takes on the movements and persona of that spirit and has no control or understanding of their actions. This for example can cause somebody to engage in frenetic movements, and wild behaviors of their diety. For example Legba often takes possession of a practicioners body, and his personality is associated with a trickster or an oldman, so someone possessed with his spirit may take on either of these personalities (Peduta 46). To understand that the person as Peduta says, is merely “acting out a complex melodrama of belief,� and really offering no harm or threat to others, nor the intention to remain in this wild state may allow people to see this transformation in a different light. This can be juxtaposed with the melodrama of beleifs that are acted out when a Christian is overtaken with the spirit of the Holy Ghost.


The current understanding of idea comes directly out of misconceptions about Vodun practices as well. The stereotype is of an undead human who is going to arise and eat the brains of other humans and therefore turning them into zombis. This is a wild misrepresentation of the Vodun understanding of zombi. According to Peduta, the traditional Vodun belief around how somebody becomes a zombi is as a punishment for a crime that they commited against the community. This caused fear in the Vodun community about being turned into a zombi and therefore, created a desire to not transgress against fellow members. In fact due to the nature of zombies and how they became that way, people did not fear zombies, but rather “feared getting turned into them” (Pedro 46). Another misconception about Vodun practices is the use of a Voodoo doll to inflict harm, control the movements or mind of, or kill a person. When one is traveling in New Orleans they could see shops filled with these dolls selling cheap as souviners. A quick internet search of the word Voodoo will also conjure up many images of voodoo dolls as well as websites selling “authentic” ones. There is however, no evidence that a belief in such a device is part of Vodun practices in any form. So where did this image come from? It is hard to say exactly what caused this misconception about Vodun, however one theory claims that the Voodoo doll is a derivative of a talisman in the shape of a human being that many practicioners of Vodun wore. This talisman would often be filled with herbs treated for medicinal purposes and worn for protection. These talisman however were never worn in order to harm or control a person. Another instance where Vodun was blamed for conjuring evil spirits is with the recent Hatian earthquake. This devistating earthquake was blamed, by some, on those individuals who practiced Vodun. There were violent retrobutions dealt to practicioners of Vodun by those who thought that the cause of the earthquake derived from a Vodun ceremony that had just been held. Some felt that at this ceremony those who practiced Vodun had conjured up an evil spirit and that was the direct cause of the destruction. This however is an ironic belief and attempt to seek revenge by those same people who try to denounce Vodun as a nothing more than a cult full of primative superstitions. Another recent attempt at blaming the evil nature of Vodun for a calamity happened in Cote d’Iviore in West Africa. There was recently a civil war regarding who the rightfully elected president was. It was claimed by some that the more than 50 statues erected the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo (said to be the loser) in his ten years in office were actually erected as a cover for Vodun magic. It was stated that he could not be taken from power while these statues were in place, so people set about breaking the statues. Ironically a day after they were destroyed Gbagbo was arrested by United Nations troops, seemingly validating the power of Vodun. It wa under the guise of the power of these statues that many people lost their lives in civil war when individuals seeking power believed that these statues would keep Gbagbo in power. While there are many theories about how and why misconceptions and stereotypes emerged surrounding Voodoo, the fact that they exhist is undesputed. Some of the misconceptions and stereotypes have led to persecution and marginiliztion of those who are practicing Vodun, while others have led to mega block buster movies creating a wealth of capital for those who are actively exploiting and sensationalizing them. Whether or not an individual believes in the power of Vodun, it is clear that it is a real, codified belief system that has weathered the storm of slavery as well as the test of time to claim to have as many as 6 million practicioners to date. 34

Image courtesy of

People destroy objects that were to be used in a voodoo ceremony in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Tuesday Feb. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

This image is of Ivorian troops breaking monuments erected by Laurant Gbagbo said to hold Vodun magic just one day before his arrest. Image couresy of


Works Cited Allured, Janet. "The Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans Voodoo." H-Net. (2006): 1-5. Print. Apter, Andrew. "On African Origins, Creolization and Connaissence in Hatian Voodoo ." American Ethnologist. 29.2 (2002): 233-60. Print. Demissie, Fassil, and Andrew Apter. "An Enchanting Darkness: A New Representaiton of Africa." American Anthropologist New Series. 97.3 (1995): 559-66. Print. Dobois, Laurent. "Voodoo and History." Comparitive Studies in Society and History. 43.1 (2001): 92-100. Print. Jacobs , Claude. "Folk for Whom? Tourist Guidebooks, Local Color, and the Spiritual Churches of New Orleans." Journal of American Folklore. 114.453 (2001): 309-330. Print. Norman, Neil. "Powerful Pots Humbling Holes and Regional Ritual Process: Towards an Archeology of Huedan Vodun, ca 1650-1727." African Archeological Review. 26. (2009): 187-218. Print Person, Yves. "Pour Une Histoire des Religions Africaines." Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions. 36.18 (1973): 91-101. Print. Stanonis, Joseph, Anthony. Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the emergence of modern tourism, 1918-1945. Univ of Georgia Pr, 2006. Print. Peduto, Gregory. "The Mystery of Voodoo." History Magazine (Toronto). 11.5 (2010): 45-47. Print. Touchstone, Blake. "Voodoo in New Orleans." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society . 13.4 (1972): 371-86. Print Gates, Henry Lewis Jr. “The Slave Kingdom� Picture Credits Graphics on: Cover page, page 1, page 2 and page 3:- Microsoft Clip Organizer, Microsoft Inc. Image:-Page Image:-Page Images: Page 6:- Images: Page 28:- archive search of voodoo Images: Page 11 and 12:- Images: Page 17:- Image:- Page 22:- Image:- Page 18:- and top picture on page Image:- Page 23:- middle and bottom Images:-Page 24:- all images thanks to Images:- Page 29:- Images:-Page 30:-all images thanks to Image:- Page 27:- Image:-Page Image:-Page 32:- Images:- Page 35:- as credited Image:-Page 37:- Images:-Page 36



Ikon Volume 1 Issue 1  

This is the final project for my English 5080 special topics New Orleans Course

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