Today is Friday, or barely still Friday, and I have claimed this day to be my official Halloween blog day. Since I find myself in New Orleans on a work assignment, I think I’d like to chit chat about Voodoo.
Did you know there is not just one type of Voodoo?
On one hand, there’s the Haitian Voudou, while here in America we have Louisiana’s Voodoo. The voudou practitioners in Haiti prefer the spelling v-o-u-d-o-u, this way, it’s not confused with the American brand. Both branches of voodoo though, come straight from the tribal religions of Africa.
The historians argue that voodoo was birthed in Haiti, but remarkably this is not universally agreed upon. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum says voodoo in New Orleans predates the religion found in Haiti.
What is clear is that the voodoo religion did not travel from Haiti to New Orleans as reported, but instead, the slaves brought this religion with them directly from Africa and were arriving to Haiti and New Orleans at the same time.
The actual word “Voodoo” is spelled many different ways. “Vodou” or “Vodun” is often associated with Haiti, while “voodoo” is generally used in New Orleans. “Vudu”, “Vodoun”, “Vaudou”, “Vaudoux”, and “Voudou,” are all different variants of the same word, and there may be more. The word means “spirit”, which is also the simple meaning of the word “zombie”, and derives from the Fon language of present day Benin, Africa. Sometimes, the word “vodun” refers to the pantheon of spirits, or gods, in the Benin religion.
Unlike in religions where language is a presumed piece of the religious script, Voodoo is not dependent on language. Voodoo is a pre-language practice, not a pre-literate practice. This means that voodoo pre-dates language, but also involves competence. The rituals are mainly communicated through imagery and rhythm, and language is not necessarily involved.
One interesting aspect of Haiti and New Orleans voodoo is their shared concept of the word zombie. New Orleans maintains that the word zombie refers to the spirit, and doesn’t necessarily carry the implications that there is a body involved, while Haiti discusses zombies in context of dead people being risen to become slaves.
The Louisiana voodoo was brought to Louisiana by African slaves and is on record for the first time in 1719. Did slave owners ban, or allow voodoo? Some historical accounts say the slave owners suppressed the religion altogether, but it’s not a fast fact. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum reports that the Catholic Church and voodoo tended to ban together because they both perceived Anglo-American politics and present-day culture as threatening.
The Catholic Church allowed people to pray to saints and voodoo. In fact, in the New Orleans voodoo tradition people worship ancestor spirits, which resemble saint-worship in the Catholic Church, and of note, the Haitian Voodoo people worship celestial spirits called loas.
People often incorrectly assumed that New Orleans Voodoo is a “hoodoo” religion, consisting of mere root working and conjuring spirits, or it’s confused with pure superstition and folklore. The main reasons for this misconception is that Hollywood often depicts voodoo as a death cult, rather than a religion, and that New Orleans openly caters to tourists by marketing a glamorized version of voodoo. Voodoo tends to be practiced in private audiences rather than out in the open, so it is taken seriously, and the most devout priests do not like the falsified commercialization of the religion.
In Haiti, the religion is openly practiced, though they also have secret sects. The religion has different culture flavors though and has been distorted due to commercialization. One reason the voodoo religion differs significantly from the Louisiana religion is that the Catholic Church was banned in Haiti up to 1860, and when it was reinstated, it was in direct conflict with voodoo. In Louisiana, the Catholic Church and voodoo religion existed together.
Though both religions communicate directly with the spirits, the way they communicate with them is quite different. In Haiti, the people worship astral spirits, which are of a more celestial and mystical nature rather than ancestor spirits. Haiti voodoo practitioners communicate their religion more through visual means, such as drawings (sigils, symbols, and hieroglyphics). In New Orleans the religion’s communication is through rhythm, as in jazz music. Jazz music is used in spiritual processions (parades), which is why there is such a heavy association with jazz and voodoo. However, the methodology overlaps in both forms, and both ways of communication can be found in either country.