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VOODOO: ANCIENT RELIGION IN THE 21ST CENTURY

A dark mystery from the Dark Continent, the word “voodoo” alone evokes frissons of terror, nurtured by decades of exploitation in pulp fiction and B-movies. A mixture of tradition and forced change, the religion has remained hidden, a secrecy necessary for its survival through centuries of persecution. But the old gods sleep no longer.

They have begun to reveal themselves to people outside their traditional followers. Eleggua, Damballah, Ezili, Baron Samedi, the faces of African religion in America, the gods and goddesses of Voodoo.

Most people know only one face of the religion, its spell-work, more technically called Hoodoo. Voodoo, or more correctly, Voudoun, is an earth religion, in many ways similar to such more widely known traditions as Wicca and shamanism.

Voudoun is a syncrestic religion, a blend of many African religions which came together in the New World when their practitioners were forcibly migrated here as part of the slave trade. These ancestral religions include those of the Fon, the Nago, the Ibos, Dahomeans, Congos, Senegalese, Haussars, Caplaous, Mondungues, Mandinge, Angolese, Libyans, Ethiopians, and the Malgaches. Relationships with the also-conquered Caribe Indians lead to absorption of that group’s lore and some of their beliefs.

In an effort to stop this banding together of the groups, and to weaken the strength their religion gave them, the French rulers of Haiti, the birth land of Voudoun as we know it, prohibited all African religious practices. This lead to the final syncretism of the religion, when it blended with the Catholicism of the ruling Europeans.

Voudoun is one of the most politically visible earth religions. In their fight for independence, Haitians, a blended people of Native Caribbean and African origin, appealed to their gods and actively made sacrifices to them to aid in their fight. They also turned the spell-working aspect against the French government officials, instilling fear and worse when forced to do so. In 1804, their independence was finally won.

But the use of Voudoun in the political arena didn’t end. As late as the Twentieth Century, it was used by Papa Doc Duvalier and his strong-arm security forces, the Ton-ton Macoute, to enforce obedience to his oppressive rule. This is a part of the story in the movie "The Serpent and the Rainbow", a drama loosely based on the true experiences of ethno-botanist Wade Davis.

This is far from the religion’s only experience in celluloid. Hollywood’s version, based on the most shocking manifestations and a lot of creative license, has appeared in the company of James Bond ("Live and Let Die"), Bela Lugosi ("Voodoo Man"), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And it’s taken quite seriously, in its spell-work aspect, by the law, even in the United States. In New Orleans, it’s still illegal to kill someone by the use of magic.

But to only see this is to only see one side of the coin. The other side is a very life-affirming, positive relationship with the gods. A relationship that, by its very form, frightens our “civilized” sensibilities. Because, when the gods come, they come into the bodies of their worshippers, “riding” them, temporarily taking over the business of running the body. To the Voudoun practitioner, this is not a frightening experience, but a desirable one. It is sought by use of shamanic trance induction methods, including music and dance. The person being ridden attains an ecstatic state, in full communion with the “Loa”, the deity.

There are many Loa. New ones are born and old ones pass away as new challenges and opportunities appear to the practitioners. In this way, this is a dynamic religion with horizons not open to practitioners of many, more mainstream, faiths. As in other earth religions, the Loa are the anthropomorphic faces of natural phenomena, and the “keepers” necessary for this type of pantheon.

The celebrant must first approach Eleggua, also known as Legba, the Gatekeeper. Legba is a child-like deity, delighting in child-like offerings. Bring him candy, bright, shiny coins, and, his adult vice, good cigars. If he is pleased, he will allow your passage to the gods.

They include Damballah, the serpent god, often symbolized in the temple by a boa or python. His day is Thursday, his color white, his domain springs, lakes and ponds. He is a protector of these, and of his devotees.

Ezili or Ezuli is the best known of the goddesses. Her days are Tuesday and Thursday, and she is the goddess of love, especially sexual trysts, and feminine beauty.

Ayida-Wedo is the goddess of rain and the rainbow. Alivodu is the guardian of the house. He is invoked to heal illness. Shango is the god of war. Papa Zaka rules agriculture.

One of the most feared of the gods is Baron Samedi, the chief of the gods of the dead. He is depicted as a dignified man in an undertaker’s suit, with a white skull face, a top hat, and a cane.

The gods are divided into families. The Rada, or Sun, family represent the benign, helpful aspects of the powers beyond. The Petro are their opposites.

Each Loa has his or her symbol, or “veve”. It is a take on this device that is usually shown as the “Voodoo marking” in Hollywood, as in Steven Seagal’s "Marked for Death". The Rada family has their veves, also, so one cannot assume that all such markings are evil or signs thereof.

The priests and priestesses of the religion are known as Hougans, or Root-men, and Mambos, or Mama-loas, women of the gods. They serve much as do the priests and priestesses of other, more demystified, religions, taking the prayers of the people to the gods and overseeing the organized worship opportunities, marrying and burying, and teaching and counseling.

While animal sacrifice is a part of the religion, it must be seen in the context of Old Testament Hebrew or other traditional religions, in which the animal is a gift to the gods, food for them as bread is food for us. (Compare Christian communion, in which the god is offered to the people.)

There are several other African syncretic religions in the New World. These include Santeria, Cadomble and Palo Mayombe. The latter two are seen by some as off-shoots of Voudoun, and by others as totally separate children of the same ancestors.

Voudoun is currently practiced in the Caribbean, and in major cities and small towns throughout the United States. It is most visible in areas with significant immigrant Haitian populations, but is an ancestral religion in many other areas, alive and well, if underground. Like other earth religions, it is undergoing a resurgence as more people find a need to connect to the earth, and the ways of their ancestors, spiritual and physical, for growth and healing.