What do you know about Vodou?
Where did you get that impression?
Vodou probably isn’t what you think it is. It might be easier to start with what Vodou isn’t.
- Vodou isn’t accurately portrayed in most movies, TV shows and books. Even some documentaries and non-fiction books are very inaccurate.
- Vodou isn’t a cult, black magic or devil worship. People who practice Vodou are not witchdoctors, sorcerers or occultists.
- Vodou isn’t a practice intended to hurt or control others. Most Vodouists have never seen a “Voodoo doll” (unless, like you, they saw it in a movie).
- Vodou isn’t morbid or violent.
- Vodou, like other religions, isn’t the same everywhere. Not everyone who practices Vodou does it in exactly the same way or agrees on exactly the same things. (This document only represents my understanding of Vodou. I can’t speak for everyone!)
- Vodou isn’t usually treated with the same respect shown to other religions.
So…what is Vodou?
- Vodou is a religion that originates in Africa. In America and the Caribbean, it is a combination of mostly African, Catholic and Native American traditions.
- Vodou has no scripture or world authority; it is community-centered and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility.
- Vodou is different in different parts of the world, and varies from community to community. This document is mostly about Vodou in New Orleans and Haiti.
- Vodou embraces and encompasses the entirety of human experience.
- Like all religions, Vodou is practiced by people who are imperfect and may use religion for their own purposes, good or bad.
What do Vodouists believe?
To understand what they believe, you have to first understand how a Vodouist sees the world. Those who practice Vodou believe that there is a visible and an invisible world, and that these worlds are intertwined. Death is a transition to the invisible world, so our predecessors are still with us in spirit.
In addition to loved ones we knew in life, there are the Lwa: universal spirits that are archetypes of human personalities (the warrior, the healer, etc.) and others that embody more specific concerns or localities. Vodouists develop relationships with these Lwa to seek their counsel and help with concerns in the visible world. In some ways this is not dissimilar to the secular practice of studying and honoring remarkable historic figures. For example, someone who wishes to effect social change might find inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi and feel a kinship with them. They may read their books, keep a poster of them on the wall, place significance on their day of birth or death and try to live by their example. In a similar fashion, a Vodouist develops a relationship with particular Lwa, seeks to understand and embody the principles they represent, connects spiritually in order to affect personal transformation and manifest this energy in the visible world to help the living.
Like the Catholic saints or angels, the Lwa are familiar and accessible whereas the “great good God,” although loving, is distant, and somewhat above individual human concerns. Vodou has ordained clergy, both Hougan (priests) and Manbo (priestesses) that make a commitment to a spiritual path and can offer guidance when needed, but it is believed that each person is responsible for their own actions and capable of self-actualization. Vodouists especially places value on the strength of community for support and enrichment.
Just as there are differences within Christianity, there is variation within Vodoun beliefs and practices. In places and times where conditions are very desperate, Vodou is often focused on survival. Many Vodouists feel that part of religion is service to their community, so there may be emphasis on healing and social activism.
If Vodou is just another religion, why does everyone think it’s scary?
Racism clouds our view of Vodou. It is rooted in slavery and intricately connected to this hemisphere’s political and social evolution. Vodou was first practiced in America & the Caribbean by slaves of African descent, whose culture was both feared and ridiculed. Slaves were not considered fully human. Their religion was dismissed as superstition, their priests were denigrated as witchdoctors, their Gods and Spirits were denounced as evil.
The only successful slave revolution in modern history occurred in Haiti in the late 1700s when slaves of African descent overthrew French rulers and took control of the country. Most slaves were Vodouists, and some military leaders were priests who inspired and organized their communities to fight for freedom. The Haitian Revolution provoked fear in other European-American colonies that were reliant on vast numbers of slaves as plantation labor. The imagery and vocabulary of Vodou (and other Afro-Caribbean religions) became threatening and ingrained in those cultures as something horrifying, associated with bloodshed and violence. It was brutally repressed in most places. It became taboo.
Over time, American culture became fascinated by this mysterious tradition and began to depict it in movies and books as sensationalized horror. “Voodoo” practices were dreamed up by Hollywood; most of the disturbing images fixed in our minds are something we saw in a movie. Hollywood has created a mythology that we have taken as truth. Between that and the old fears of slave rebellions, “Voodoo” has become part of modern folklore as something evil that can hurt us.
Vodou is still widely practiced in Haiti, and it is still relevant in politics there. Politics and religion make a controversial mix; in that regard, Vodou is as problematic as any other belief system. In the USA, many Vodouists are afraid of how they will be treated so they hide their religion. While this is understandable, it also reinforces suspicion that they practice in secret to conceal something bad or violent. Fear begets fear.
We aren’t always aware of the origins of our beliefs; now and then we need to reassess what we know and how we know it. There were times in our nation’s history that other groups (e.g. Jews, Catholics) were similarly reviled. It’s only through education and getting to know those with different beliefs that we can overcome our fear and realize that they are ordinary people who enrich our communities.
But what about…
Food, and its life-giving energy, is one of the many offerings given to the Lwa and usually shared afterwards by the community. In a meat-eating society, animals are food; in small-scale cultures, people slaughter animals at home rather than buying meat at the grocery store. Animal sacrifice is not about the death of the animal, but the offering of life-giving energy in the preparation of sacred food. Many Vodouists in the USA don’t consider animal sacrifice culturally appropriate and do not practice it, preferring to offer store-bought food. Others consider this an integral part of their tradition and continue to take animal life with reverence, cook the meat, and eat it. As long as hunting, animal testing and the slaughter of animals for meat are accepted in our country, less familiar cultural practices that take animal life must also be respected.
Part of Vodou is building a relationship with the Lwa. During ceremony, Vodouists invite the Lwa to possess them and speak through them. There are degrees of possession, just as there are degrees of any emotional or religious experience. Vodouists have an affinity for the Lwa, and welcome the experience. Many other religions invite some type of possession and believe that at times, Spirit, however that is understood by their tradition, speaks through people.
All the skeletons?
In Vodou, death is considered natural, a part of every person’s experience and a transition, not an ending. Gede (pronounced GEH-day), the Lwa of the dead, is often represented as a skeletal figure wearing a top hat and carrying a cane. He is a dapper fellow, funny and welcoming. During the days of slavery, death was the only release from horrific conditions, so the figure of death became a friendly one.
You’re kidding, right?
“Le Grand Zombi” is the name of a Vodou spirit associated with snakes, but not to be confused with “zombies” as we understand them. Zombies are the boogeyman of Vodou culture. Zombies in movies and books today are apparently self-propelled and lurch out of their graves for a variety of reasons, but older folklore depicted them as silent, mindless laborers with no free will, completely controlled by a master. That sounds like the life of a slave! To people who lived in slavery, nothing could be worse than imagining an afterlife of similar servitude. Zombies reflect cultural fears so perfectly that we’ve made them our own. Movie zombies today are often created by a terrible virus, shadowy corporate dealings or a botched government program. These are things that make us anxious, even without zombies chasing us around as a result.
Why don’t you spell it “Voodoo?”
The original language of Vodou is not English, so spellings vary. Lwa may be spelled “Loa,” “Gede” may be spelled “Guedeh” and so on. One is not more correct than the other, but different communities may have a preference.
Many years ago, “Hindu” was spelled “Hindoo.” The “oo” ending can be associated with outdated translations and a cultural climate that was derogatory towards other belief systems. “Voodoo” has also come to be synonymous with black magic, curses, Voodoo dolls and so on. Many Vodouists consider “Vodou,” closer to the correct pronunciation and may also use the term as an attempt to distance themselves from negative stereotypes. The word originates in Africa and can be spelled several ways in English, e.g. “Vodu” or “Vodun.” It simply means “spirit.”
Where can I get more information about Vodou?/Author’s Disclaimer
This document is written assuming the reader has some familiarity both with American culture and Christian traditions, so uses those as a basis of comparison. Vodou is misunderstood, centuries old and practiced by millions of people around the world. I can’t do it justice in three pages! I am personally familiar with Vodou in New Orleans; I can’t stress enough that beliefs and practices vary. Every person has their own view and experience. I couldn’t represent the diversity of this tradition in thirty pages.
I encourage further reading, but also recommend caution; a lot of material in print and on the web is very sensationalized and inaccurate. If you are curious about a religion, it’s a good idea to talk to a variety of people who practice it, attend ceremonies and see what it’s about.
Here are some books and links to get to you started:
Maya Deren Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Karen McCarthy Brown Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
Sallie Ann Glassman Vodou Visions: An Encounter with Divine Mystery
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith: various books and essay collections
Robert Farris Thomson: various books
A more in depth Vodou FAQ:
Interview w Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman:
NPR interview with Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith:
Wikipedia (the quality of articles varies):
Why did you write this document?
A personal note from Saumya:
I practice New Orleans Vodou as a Manbo Asogwe (priestess) and study it at Harvard as an ALB (undergraduate) candidate in Religious Studies. I’m tired of jokes about Voodoo dolls, and of people in my community being mocked, insulted and discriminated against because of their religion. I’m also involved in interfaith and intergroup facilitation and hope to help people learn about misunderstood traditions (such as Islam, Wicca, Pentecostal Christianity, Vodou and atheism) so they can stop fearing them.
I’m American and my family background is Hindu. Growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s, I heard many ignorant and hurtful things said about Hinduism and the Yoga/Meditation traditions that my family taught and practiced. My teachers and textbooks portrayed our religion in misleading and disturbing terms. Hindus in movies always seemed to be wearing weird costumes and involved in bloody rites. People thought we were a cult of devil worshippers.
Happily, things change. Today, many people have friends, neighbors and colleagues who are Hindu. Practicing this religion is usually viewed as one aspect of holistic personhood, not something that defines someone as dangerous to others. Yoga studios are commonplace; no one who walks into one worries that they might be identified as being in a cult (at least, I hope not). My family, and many other families, played a part in this by practicing our traditions openly, answering questions, and responding to insults, fear and misconceptions with humor, patience, honesty… and occasionally, exasperation and outrage. The patience was more useful!
There are other religions practiced by Americans today that are misunderstood, and there are many communities who live in fear. I aim to change that. I am active in educating the public about Vodou but choose to focus on actual events, educational publications and news agencies. Popular entertainment is meant to entertain, not inform, which is why I write to the New York Times and the Oxford English Dictionary (they have added Vodou to their list of words to update!) but not Warner Brothers or Columbia Tri-Star Pictures.
Everyone has the right to their own religion and culture. Everyone has something valuable to contribute to the conversation that is America. Our country was founded on these principles; we uphold them not just with laws and policies but in how we speak and listen, in how we live our lives every day.
Yours in Service,
Reverend Saumya Arya Haas
Hindu Pujarin (priestess)
Manbo Asogwe (Vodou priestess)
ALB Candidate in Religious Studies, Harvard University, School of Extension Studies
Director of Spiritual and Interfaith Program, New Orleans Healing Center
Please feel free to contact me with any further questions firstname.lastname@example.org